Matt Houston/AP Photo
A natural gas pipeline on Maryland's western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The state approved extending another pipeline onto the state's lower eastern shore.
Matt Houston/AP Photo
Maryland's three-member Board of Public Works unanimously approved a controversial 10-inch diameter natural gas pipeline under wetlands on the state's Eastern Shore on Wednesday. But board members said they hoped it would be used as a bridge fuel to cleaner renewable energy sources in the future.
Part of the pipeline already exists and goes through Pennsylvania, Delaware and Wicomico County, Maryland. The approved project would extend the pipeline an additional 6.83 miles from Wicomico into Somerset County to provide natural gas to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and the Eastern Correctional Institution. Another section of the pipeline could expand south into Virginia's eastern shore in the near future, state officials said.
In July 2019, the Maryland Environmental Service — a quasi-governmental company that provides operational and technical services to protect the environment — entered into a $2 million contract for the pipeline with Chesapeake Utilities Corporation. However, the project couldn't go forward without final approval from the state Board of Public Works.
Representatives from Somerset County—including Heidi Anderson, the president of UM-Eastern Shore—testified at Wednesday's virtual meeting that the pipeline would help the lower shore reduce carbon emissions. They also said it would lower energy costs and spark economic development in one of the most economically disadvantaged communities in the state.
"This natural gas project will allow UMES and the local residents of Somerset County to get rid of the dirtiest oil fuels that we are now using as energy here on the Eastern Shore," Anderson told the board.
Anderson says she hopes to have the project completed by 2025. The contract would last 10 years with an option to renew.
The pipeline was opposed by environmental activists, the state's NAACP, and state representatives from other parts of Maryland who said the project will further disadvantage Somerset's communities of color.
"This pipeline threatens the region's ecosystems, drinking water supplies, while causing irreparable damage to the land and our climate," said Anthony Fields, a campaign coordinator with Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a environmental protection organization.
The board's members—Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, State Comptroller Peter Franchot, and State Treasurer Nancy Kopp—heard about three hours of public testimony about the project.
Franchot said he saw natural gas as a bridge fuel that will help bring lower energy costs to the county in the short-term.
"It's critical that this vote not be interpreted as an endorsement for fossil fuels and long-term dependency on natural gas," Franchot said. "This is a temporary measure that must be treated as such."
Kopp agreed with Franchot's comments and urged the legislature to move more quickly on reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
"And everything we do has to be done in the context of environmental justice," Kopp said.
Delegate Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery County) is considering legislation to ban future natural gas infrastructure projects on state-run institutions. The state already has a mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emission by 40% by 2030.
Rutherford pointed out that the project will reduce carbon emissions by 38% at UMES and 65% at the Eastern Correctional Institution. The correctional facility is currently relying on wood burning pellets.
"In terms of an environmental argument, subjecting the people there in Somerset County to continue to breathe in the emissions ... to me it seems to go the other way that the justice would be to allow them to have the choice," Rutherford said.
Rutherford added that environmental groups and others, who don't live on the Eastern Shore, are denying choice to those in the county who are already breathing in dirty air.
Josh Tulkin with Maryland's Sierra Club agreed with Rutherford that the lower Eastern Shore communities have already been economically disadvantaged and said that they should be the first to receive clean renewable energy sources. But Tulkin added that the real problem was that initial requests for proposals for the project only asked for options looking into natural gas. "So to say this was the best option is assuming we looked at all the options, we did not."
Charles Glass, acting director of the Maryland Environmental Service, said the requests for proposals only asked for natural gas because the correctional institution needed an "uninterruptible stable source of fuel for both steam for heating and electricity generation."
The board's approval of the pipeline contrasts their decision made almost two years ago which stopped Columbia Gas from building the Potomac Gas Pipeline on 0.12 acres of federally protected land in western Maryland. The board's general counsel said the difference between these two cases is that the Potomac project did not need any wetland drilling approvals and was about a land easement.