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Analysis: Maine’s green goals shaded by oil and gas dependence

Roughly 14 years ago, I persuaded a lobsterman to take me out to his fishing grounds off Saint John, New Brunswick. I was there to write about the development of a new liquefied natural gas import terminal built by Irving Oil, New Brunswick’s largest company, and Repsol, the Spanish multinational energy company.

The 600-foot-long New England, a tanker operated by Irving Oil, unloads its cargo at the Buckeye-Irving terminal in South Portland on Oct. 23, after sailing from Irving’s refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. Maine gets more than 80% of its gasoline and heating oil from Canada, and much of it comes from Irving’s Canaport crude oil terminal. Tux Turkel/Staff Writer, File

Why did I want to write about this project? Because some of the gas being brought from overseas was going to be injected into a recently built pipeline system running through Maine. It was going to be an important, new source of energy for us.

The lobsterman was concerned about how LNG tanker traffic might affect his livelihood. He already had to live with the parade of supertankers that arrived next door at Irving’s Canaport crude oil terminal, the largest in Canada.

I didn’t realize it then, but that’s where an even bigger story was taking place.

The crude arriving at Canaport is pumped to Irving’s refinery, 5 miles away. Some comes back in the form of gasoline, heating oil and jet fuel, to be delivered by smaller tankers.

Here’s what I overlooked, 14 years ago. A critical share of that production is exported to Maine, in ships that dock in South Portland, Bucksport and Bangor. Today, Maine gets more than 80% of its gasoline and heating oil from Canada, and much of it comes from Canaport.

Did you fill your car with gasoline today? Even if you didn’t go to an Irving station, one of which seems to be on almost every corner in Maine, there’s a decent chance you went to one that buys its gas from an Irving terminal.

Tankers shuttle refined petroleum products, such as heating oil and gasoline, from Saint John to Portland Harbor year round. Last fall, when I was writing about heating oil prices, I photographed the 600-foot-long oil tanker New England unloading at the Buckeye-Irving terminal. If you happen to drive across the Fore River on Interstate 295, glance toward the harbor and the tank farms. Maybe you’ll spot one of the Irving ships in port.

I’m relating the Canaport story to make a point. Mainers like to think of themselves as an independent bunch. When it comes to energy, though, we’re not as self-reliant as we may think we are, or as we’re striving to be.


Let’s stick with gasoline and heating oil for a minute.

We’ve established that the gas you’re pumping likely came from Canada. But Irving doesn’t publicize where the crude comes from.

We can assume some comes from tar sands in Alberta. Ten years ago, the Canadian company now called TC Energy Corp. wanted to build a pipeline running from Alberta east to Canaport. Plans were dropped in 2017, following strong opposition. In desperation, some tar sands crude has since been shipped from British Columbia through the Panama Canal and up the East Coast to Saint John, a trip that takes a month.

However, Canada’s federal energy regulator says the majority of Canaport’s crude comes from non-Canadian sources. That suggests a lot of the gasoline we put in our cars comes from crude oil that originated overseas.

Our dependence will ease as more Mainers drive electric cars. But unless you have solar panels and live off the grid, you’re connected to New England’s electric transmission system. Except on sunny days, you’re charging your battery-powered vehicle with a mix of energy sources at different times of the day and the year.

Maine is part of ISO-New England, the independent system operator of the six-state electric grid. Power flows back and forth, with generators dispatched based on winning bid prices in a competitive marketplace.

The biggest year-round fuel source for power generation is natural gas, used to generate half the region’s electricity. Most of it comes from domestic pipelines into New England. But on the coldest days, some comes from the Caribbean, through Boston Harbor and Saint John. And when it’s so cold that there’s not enough natural gas for both heating and power production, or when wholesale gas prices are especially high, our generation mix can also include oil. Some may come from Maine’s own Wyman Station power plant in Yarmouth.

You can see this generation mix every minute of the day, via a pie chart on ISO-New England’s website. I watched how this played out in December, and it’s quite revealing. Here are two examples.

• Dec. 7: Warm and rainy, 50 degrees in…

Read More: Analysis: Maine’s green goals shaded by oil and gas dependence

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