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Cove Point Serves as Flashpoint for Maryland Debate Over Fracking

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A protest rally is planned for this Sunday in front of the U.S. Capitol. At issue is what’s become a very hot topic in the environmental world: fracking. It’s a process where you pump water, sand, and other materials into the ground at an extremely high pressure so you can fracture shale rocks and release the oil and natural gas inside. WAMU 88.5's environment reporter Jonathan Wilson has been exploring the issue, and he sat down with Metro Connection's Rebecca Sheir to discuss it.

Rebecca Sheir: So let’s talk about this protest scheduled for Sunday. Organizers are calling it “Rally to Stop Fracked Gas Exports: Cove Point and Beyond.” Tell us about Cove Point.

Jonathan Wilson: Sure. Cove Point is a Liquefied Natural Gas import facility just outside Lusby, Maryland, in Calvert County. The facility is owned and operated by Dominion, one of the nation’s biggest energy producers and transporters. Dominion wants to turn Cove Point in to an export facility to send some of the surplus natural gas here in the states to places like India and Japan.

I remember you first reported on that issue last fall. What’s happened since then?

Well, back then opponents of the plan were urging Maryland’s public service commission to put a stop to the project — opponents believe it will be a huge new source of pollution in Maryland, with most of the benefits going to Dominion.

In May, the public service commission gave Dominion approval, with some caveats: the commission is forcing Dominion to donate $48 million to the state to help promote renewable energy and provide low-income energy assistance. Still, that approval did not make environmental groups happy.

Here’s Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network: “We think that the safety concerns of the people of Calvert County are not worth $48 million. We think the climate harm that this will do to the state and to the planet is not worth $48 million dollars, so there’s enormous regret over the flawed decision — in our view — from the Maryland Public Service Commission.

So if the Cove Point project is moving forward, is there really anything the critics can do to change that reality?

Well, that’s what this weekend’s protest is all about: final permitting for this $3.8 billion project lies in the hands of the federal energy regulatory commission – FERC – and that’s where opponents are targeting their outrage. They say that FERC is just a rubber stamp for the oil and gas industry and that the entire process hasn’t been transparent or stringent enough.

I talked with Mike Frederick, the vice president of operations at Dominion Cove Point. He disputes that characterization: "We‘re 20-plus-thousand pages of information into the FERC docket. For a project like this, there should be a complete and thorough review, FERC’s been doing that. It’s taken a little bit longer than we’d like, probably, but the reality is that we want it done correctly, and they’re doing it correctly.

But Rebecca, even if FERC grants final approval, we could be far away from Cove Point actually getting constructed. Mike Tidwell told me unequivocally that opponents believe this approval process has been illegal, and he says lawsuits are already in the works.

Well, let’s turn to the big controversial practice at the heart of all this: fracking. Isn’t fracking illegal in Maryland?

That’s right. There are lots of unknowns and plenty of disagreement over fracking’s effect on the environment and public health. So right now, Cove Point would simply be the export location for gas drilled in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. But a small part of the Marcellus Shale lies underneath Western Maryland, and for the past three years or so, a commission appointed by Governor O’Malley has been charged with studying the possibility of allowing shale-gas drilling — fracking — in Maryland. That commission is expected to deliver its final recommendation in October.

Earlier this year, some members of that commission came out and criticized the entire process, and continue to complain that they need more time to consider public health studies – including one that was just handed to them at the end of June.

Ann Bristow, with the Savage River Watershed Association, is one of those commission members who’s raising concerns: "If the health study really could use more time, as has been communicated to us, if it feels like we’re crunching all these studies together — we’re at least two months behind the projected schedule from what was given us in April, for what we considered in meetings. So, if there’s a lot to be considered, why the rush? And we don’t have an answer for that.

But we should point out that not everyone is a fan of Bristow criticizing the process before it’s actually complete. Here’s Drew Cobbs with the Maryland Petroleum Council: "If after the fact they want to raise concerns, that’s one thing. But to really sort of subvert the process as it goes on, is terrible. You know I think in the end, they probably will recommend going forward with fracking in Maryland, with safeguards. And from what I’ve seen and where things stand right now, Maryland will by far have the strictest and tightest regulations in place if we do go forward with fracking."

So Drew Cobbs is saying he actually thinks the state will allow fracking?

He does. He wouldn’t say if he thought the commission would actually deliver its verdict before the state gets a new governor, but that’s the way he thinks the commission is leaning. Though he also said the state is at least a few years away from real drilling, because, once again — he believes lawsuits will come from environmental groups if that decision is made.

He also says it’s not even clear who will want to drill in Maryland. He says Maryland’s deposit is mostly dry gas and not wet gas, and so it’s not worth as much. And if Maryland does allow fracking, he says its regulations may be so strict that it won’t be worth it for companies to drill here.

Music: "The Cove" by John Powell from How to Train Your Dragon


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