ANNAPOLIS — The Board of Public Works Wednesday voted to block the sale of an easement on state land that would have allowed the completion of a controversial natural gas pipeline near Hagerstown.
The unanimous three-member decision came with little discussion just weeks after the board deferred the sale to Columbia Gas Transmission in its last meeting of 2018. The board is made up of Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp.
The board postponed a vote last month after environmental groups spoke out against the project.
Franchot, after the vote, said he agreed with opponents who claimed the project would “subject our state to all the environmental problems of this pipeline and get none of economic benefits.”
“This became a fairly big issue and the legislature, 62 members of the legislature, I think, sent a letter to the board suggesting that we not approve this particular project,” said Franchot. “I’m very comfortable doing that.”
Hogan, who had to leave the last meeting before the pipeline issue was discussed, said he was surprised to discover a decision had been deferred rather than rejected.
“The testimony (from opponents) was there,” said Hogan. “We were always going to have a three-to-nothing vote. It had nothing to do with any letter from the legislature, I can assure you of that.”
The vote, however, may not be the last word on the pipeline, which already has the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Maryland Public Service Commission.
Scott Castleman, a spokesman for the gas provider, called the vote “unfortunate,” adding “it does not change the need for, or the company’s commitment to, our Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project.”
Columbia Gas Transmission was seeking the easement to cross 20 feet across the Western Maryland Rail/Trail near Hancock. The pipeline, which would connect West Virginia to Pennsylvania, would run about 100 feet under the trail. The company proposed paying $5,000 for the easement, which was valued by assessors at $180.
The company also needs an easement to cross under the C&O Canal.
“For nearly two years, our project has been studied and scrutinized by groups including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department Natural Resources,” said Castleman. “This extensive process has confirmed that through proper design and construction our project can be completed in an environmentally responsible and safe manner.”
Environmental groups including Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Sierra Club of Maryland oppose the pipeline.
“For two years, Maryland has been calling on Governor Hogan to keep his promise and protect Marylanders from the harms of fracking,” said Brooke Harper, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “Today, he took a step in the right direction by rejecting a permit for a dangerous fracked-gas pipeline proposed by TransCanada. Hopefully, this signals a reversal of the governor’s prior policy of promoting fracked gas consumption and pipelines in Maryland.”
The decision by the three-member board could move the issue to federal court.
Columbia Gas Transmission has already secured easement agreements with private land owners in Maryland. Rerouting the pipeline would be difficult and require federal officials to agree to a modified plan or force the company to begin the pipeline approval process anew. The current certification by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission opens the door to a possible request for eminent domain.
Castleman did not answer questions about a court challenge but said the company “will consider our options over the coming days to keep this project on track and construct in a safe and environmentally conscious manner.”