Should Maryland Allow A Natural Gas Export Facility On The Chesapeake Bay?


We'll head out of the city now to the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, specifically to Calvert County, Maryland, and a place called Cove Point. That's where Dominion Power is looking to convert an existing natural gas import facility into a liquefied natural gas import facility. The plan promises to create thousands of construction jobs and help the US make money off its surplus of natural gas. But, some say the plant would be a net negative for the county and the state of Maryland. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson has the story.


Jean Marie Neal leads me down a short-mulched path behind her house, onto the sand of Cove Point Beach. It's beautiful. We're looking out onto the Chesapeake Bay. Cove Point Hollow, specifically. There are other homes that back up to the beach, but mostly what you see here are trees, sand and water, until you look to your north and a bit west, about a mile in the distance. That's where Dominion's property lies, and where two stark white storage tanks rise up above the trees.


The overall concern is that what you're doing is you're turning this entire area into an industrial site. I mean, that, itself, just blows your mind.


Dominion owns more than 1,000 acres here, but only uses about 150 acres for actual operations. And that much won't change if its 3.8 billion dollar project gets all the necessary permits from state and federal agencies. The company's expanded facility would allow Dominion to liquefy 750 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. And export it with the help of an estimated 90 fuel tankers each year, massive ships that Jean Marie Neal would see out her back window.


Keep in mind, Dominion, in 2012, only had five ships coming in for importation, so they have a very minor operation there.


That isn't really by choice. The fact is, importing natural gas doesn't make sense in the US right now. The shale gas boom has made prices here cheap. The money is in exporting that gas to places such as India and Japan. But Dominion spokesman Dan Donovan says the company's plan isn't simply about profits. He says projects like Cove Point have support as far up as the White House.


The President of the United States has said that part of his program is increased natural gas drilling in the United States, so that not only will we have better air here, but we can export some of it and reduce the use of coal in other countries. So, this project fits right in to his environmental plan.


Opponents of the plan have accused Dominion of hiding details about the project from the public and skirting close examination of its true environmental impact. Donovan says that couldn't be further from the truth.


We submitted the original filing, 12,000 pages of documents, studies of everything you can think of. Archeologically, geographically, everything, as part of the, working towards an environmental assessment. And since then, we filed another 6,000 pages.


Environmental groups want Dominion to submit to an EIS, and Environmental Impact Statement, instead of the less stringent Environmental Assessment. Donovan says that's up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which didn't ask for an EIS. And as far as public hearings...


We've had tons of them. I mean, we've been to 50, I'd say, different things. People don't come. They think it's boring, unless somebody scares them to come. Now I think they're gonna start coming. We're gonna have more. We've committed to several over the next few weeks. We're gonna announcements exactly when they are, and we'll tell them the facts. And I think they'll be a lot less scared when they hear the facts.


Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network says most local residents are only starting to grasp how massive the export facility will be, and how much more industrial activity it will bring to Cove Point.


If you're importing the natural gas from tankers, all you have to do is revaporize the liquid gas coming from the tanker. If you're exporting it, then you have to take gas, piped from Appalachia to Calvert County, and you have to liquefy it, and that liquefaction process takes a lot of energy.


Enough energy to necessitate a new 130 megawatt power plant on the site. It's a power plant, Tidwell points out, that would pump no energy into Maryland's power grid.


The local citizens pay the price, consumers in India reap the benefits.


While more local residents are raising concerns about the Cove Point proposal, Tidwell says this is much more than a not in my backyard dispute. Both sides, he says, are trying to establish a foothold in the fight over fracking, the controversial drilling practice that is still, for now at least, banned within Maryland's borders. That's why many are looking to Maryland Governor, Martin O'Malley, and the Maryland Public Service Commission, to stand in the way of Dominion's plan.


The idea that you could build this industrial facility to liquefy and export fracked gas, in Maryland, but not frack in Maryland, is absurd. Basically, in debating this facility to liquefy natural gas, we're also making a decision, will we or will we not frack in Maryland. If we build this facility, they will come with the fracking.


Governor O'Malley's commission is exploring whether the state should allow drilling in the Marcellus Shale, and is set to deliver its final report by the end of 2014. But, if Tidwell and other opponents of Dominion's Cove Point project are right about the significance of the proposed facility, the Governor may have to weigh in on the future of fracking in Maryland before then. Dominion is aiming to start construction here next summer. I'm Jonathan Wilson.


We have photographs of Cove Point and more information about Dominion's proposal on our website, Time for a break, but when we get back, going behind the scenes at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.


Look, we don't need to be a giant zoo. We don't need to be something like San Diego. We can be small, but focus on what we do well, and do it even better.


Plus, we'll explore the tricky divide between the haves and have-nots in the school lunch line.


Denying a meal or providing an alternate meal could ruin that child for the rest of the school day, and jeopardizing instruction.


That and more is just ahead on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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