The State of Maine may someday be forced to decide between its energy needs and its picturesque beauty.
That was one of the conclusions of a state showing that Maine has enough peat within its borders to meet its electrical energy needs for the next 200 years if it's willing to dig it up.
According to the study, which was prepared for the state energy office, Maine has an estimated 1.8 billion tons of peat-an energy potential three times greater than the oil in Georges Bank.
"New England and Maine will have to decide which they want," the study notes, "energy from peat or pristine bogs."
The state Office of Energy Resources, in its search for local energy sources has uncovered bog upon peat bog. "Now we have to assess its potential and send a report to the federal Department of Energy," says John Joseph of the state energy office.
Joseph stressed that the state was still within the preliminary stages of investigation the potential use of the huge peat resources.
In working on the study, however, state officials discovered that peat is used extensively in Ireland and the Soviet Union to help meet energy requirements. Ireland, for example, uses peat to meet 30 percent of its electricity needs.
The Irish also press peat into bricks and burn them for heat and cooking.
Joseph says that Irish law requires that peat provide nearly one-third the country's power. "It gives people jobs, provides electricity and limits imports," he adds.
And one peat-powered generator in the Soviet Union produces 730 megawaatts, slightly less than the nuclear power station at Wiscasset, Maine. The city of Leningrad in Russia depends on peat for 17 percent of its power.
Maine's peat reserves equal more than 3.5 billion barrels of oil and, claims Gary Linton, a researcher on the state study, there's enough peat nationwide to supply the U.S. with electricity for 20 years.
The Maine peat study was suggested by the New England office of the Federal Department of Energy. Now Joseph says, "We re trying to determine the economics of peat and the environmental impact of peat mining. That all takes time."
Peat is presently mined in the state, but it's bagged and sold to gardners, not utilities. Companies drain surface water from bogs, skim off a layer of peat, and allow the sun to dry it. Peat is about 90 percent water when first skimmed, 25 to 30 percent after drying.
But state environmentalists are concerned that draining bogs and mining could release toxic chemicals which have been used to kill insects. Many of the larger peat bogs are near blueberry barrens and areas sprayed against the spruce bug worm. Draining bogs could release arsenic and other chemicals into nearby rivers, streams or lakes.
"There are questions about the economic feasibility of using peat for energy," says Joseph. "And there may be environmental tradeoffs. We just don't have the facts to recommend any course of action yet. In fact, we haven't really completed our survey.
"People knowledgeable about Maine's energy resources suggest that our current estimates of what's there are conservative," he adds.
While state law protects coastal wetlands and river basins, Maine bogs are not specifically regulated by any agency. Large scale mining, however, would require permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.