ANNAPOLIS — A coalition of a half dozen environmental groups say they will boycott a state hearing on a proposed natural gas pipeline, calling the Maryland Department of the Environment’s review “illegitimate.”
State regulators are scheduled to host a hearing Monday evening in western Maryland — a continuation of a December meeting — to take public comment on the proposed Potomac Pipeline project. Environmental groups are calling on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and his environmental regulators to use an optional review process even as some members of the coalition simultaneously called for Hogan to oppose the project.
The calls for Hogan to act appear wrapped up in election-year politics, President Donald Trump, an expansion of the campaign against the controversial natural gas extraction process known as fracking and a push by environmental groups to double the amount of electricity that must be generated by wind and solar projects.
“The Hogan administration has a duty to ensure that this project in no way adversely affects the water quality for Marylander’s drinking water, wetlands and streams,” said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “They are essentially deferring to take that responsibility and give it to the Trump administration. They are asking the Trump administration and the Army Corps of Engineers to make a decision as to whether this pipeline will adversely affect the water quality in Maryland.”
Tidwell and others said the project could have dire environmental impacts, including polluting the Potomac and underground residential wells that serve millions of people and damaging underground rock formations that would allow for migration of pollutants.
Tidwell said the state could, outside of the federal regulatory process, decide not to issue required permits.
“They have decided not to do that,” Tidwell said. “All of the groups in this room today and legislators have repeatedly asked Governor Hogan to take on this responsibility, to seize this opportunity to regulate this pipeline… and they have refused. Instead they want to see what the Trump administration says. They want to wait and see this environmental study from Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and that is unacceptable to us.”
Tidwell and others called on Maryland to adopt a permitting review process similar to one used by Virginia.
“Our message today is, governor, do your job,” Tidwell said.
The legislature is expected to consider legislation that would double to 50 percent by 2030 the amount of electricity generated by renewable energy sources. The bill comes a year after the General Assembly voted to override Hogan’s veto of a bill increasing the amount to 25 percent. Hogan at the time said such an increase would result in higher energy costs.
“We also need to look out for an economy of the future that is going to be focused on clean energy jobs,” said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery and a candidate for governor. “That’s what so many of us are talking about is not more fossil fuel but finding our way into the clean energy revolution and those jobs in Maryland.”
Hogan during the 2017 session called for a ban on fracking in Western Maryland. The announcement effectively removed a key issue some were hoping to use against Hogan in the 2018 campaign.
A spokesman for Hogan was not immediately available for comment. But Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the state is engaged in a public process it will use in the permit approval process.
The proposed project calls for a nearly four-mile leg of eight-inch pipeline to connect West Virginia to Pennsylvania. The Maryland leg would run about 14 miles west of Hancock, Maryland — an area that is already the location of a number of other similar natural gas pipelines — with sections running nearly seven stories under the Potomac River.
The project would be built by TransCanada, which owns the Columbia Gas Transmission pipelines that run through several counties in Maryland including, Baltimore and Harford counties. The company is also the owner of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
Brooke Harper, policy director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, acknowledged that the fight against the pipeline is a continuation of the battle against fracking and an attempt to choke off supply. She repeated Hogan’s comments from a year ago in which he said potential risks of fracking in Western Maryland outweighed any potential benefits.
“Why then would we allow a fracked gas pipeline through the back door?” Harper said. “This is an underhanded way of letting fracking in our state. We want to keep Maryland frack-free.”
The project ultimately must receive approval from federal regulators similar to the review process for the construction of the Cove Point export facility in Lusby and the expansion of natural gas pipelines in Baltimore County. Both of those projects were approved under President Barack Obama and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — both Democrats.
An informational packet circulated to all 188 legislators Friday by TransCanada and Columbia Natural Gas noted that many of the groups calling for a boycott sued over the Baltimore-Harford County project, which crossed nine active streams, numerous wetlands and tunneled underneath the Little Gunpowder and North Central Rail Trail. The courts approves a settlement that required additional monitoring.
Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Allegany and Garrett and a supporter of fracking, said he was confident in the department’s ability to review the proposed pipeline and called the process transparent. Opponents of fracking just don’t like the outcome, he said.
“Maybe (the department) comes back with an answer they don’t like so they think it’s not transparent, I don’t know,” Edwards said.