LIMESTONE, Maine — A plan to transfer sustainable aviation fuel from Limestone could revive freight rail transport in central Aroostook County.
Earlier this year, the Washington D.C.-based DG Fuels announced plans to build a facility at the former Loring Air Force Base. If built, the $4.4 billion facility would provide sustainable aviation fuel to airlines along the East Coast.
To transfer that fuel, the Maine Department of Transportation would need to repair 33 miles of inactive railroad stretching from Limestone to Fort Fairfield, Caribou and Presque Isle.
If that happened, Loring could better position itself to become a major hub of industry again. The Loring Development Authority has struggled in recent years to retain major employers. But that might change thanks to a new marketing campaign and developers moving in.
“[With DG Fuels], there would be a level of rail use that isn’t currently being seen,” said Carl Flora, president and CEO of Loring Development Authority.
The 33-mile inactive rail section starts at Loring and stretches to Maysville Street in Presque Isle. Rail service has not been operational between Limestone and Fort Fairfield since the mid-1990s or to Caribou for a decade. Caribou’s inactive tracks are near the Aroostook river, prompting the city’s Riverfront Renaissance Committee to explore the possibility of an interconnected trail system.
But the DOT opted not to form an advisory council to study that idea. That’s because Loring and DG Fuels made them aware of the potential to revive the freight rails.
“With the highest and best use of our rail corridors being rail service, we are required by state law to investigate this type of rail opportunity,” said Nate Moulton, director of the Mane DOT’s Office of Freight and Passenger Services.
The Maine DOT owns 220 miles of rail lines in Aroostook County that are under lease to Maine Northern Railway. Two hundred of those miles are currently being used for freight transportation. The DOT purchased the lines in 2010 under the State Rail Preservation Act, which prioritizes rail activity over other potential uses.
Unlike potential rails-to-trails projects the DOT is studying in central and southern Maine, there is reason to think that reviving rail lines in Aroostook for DG Fuels could lead to more economic development, Moulton said.
DG Fuels would use the rail lines to transfer wood biomass to their Loring facility for conversion into aviation fuel. Once completed, the finished product would be shipped via an underground pipeline from Loring to Searsport, 200 miles away. The fuel would then be shipped to airline customers.
The pipeline was originally used to transport traditional jet fuel from Searsport to the now defunct airport at Loring during its Air Force years, Flora said. Currently, Bangor Hydro leases the pipeline and uses a section south of Mattawamkeag to transport natural gas.
This would not be the first time Loring has explored ways to revive Aroostook’s railroad. In 2021, several potato farmers used former military warehouses and airplane hangars at Loring to store their crops. Months later, Maine DOT sent refrigerated rail cars to Van Buren to ship potatoes to Canada, Massachusetts and Washington.
It could be a while before the railbeds between Limestone and Presque Isle are up and running again. DG Fuels originally projected their facility to be built by the end of 2027. Now, they’re expecting construction to end in 2028, since production at their new Louisiana facility is expected to take off more quickly, likely in early 2024.
“Right now I’d say construction [at Loring] will start towards the end of next year and end in mid- to late 2028,” said DG Fuels CEO Michael Darcy.
That gives DG Fuels, Loring and the DOT time to explore what repairs and safety measures the railbeds might need before the DG Fuels building is finished, Darcy said.
So far DG Fuels is the only major company to express interest in using former railbeds near Loring, Flora said. But Loring Development Authority hopes the renewed attention will attract other industries.
“If you had a food processing plant the size of McCain [Foods in Easton], they could bring in fry oil and then have the frozen french fries exit by railroad,” Flora said. “I think in general, the more [industry] activity you have, the more you can attract.”