A controversial pipeline that will bring natural gas to portions of Somerset County took another step forward with the Board of Works’ approval of a wetlands permit opposed by some environmental groups.
The nearly 7-mile portion of pipeline connecting Wicomico to Somerset counties will ultimately enable the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and the Eastern Correctional Institute to move to cleaner fuels to provide power to their facilities.
Environmental groups and the NAAACP opposed the permit on the grounds that it promoted fossil fuel use over renewable energy options — an argument state officials said they were not allowed to consider.
“It has virtually no impact on existing wetlands,” said Bill Morgante, state wetlands administrator. “That is the reality of what they are proposing. I’m not making light of other concerns that were brought up.”
The Eastern Shore Natural Gas Pipeline Company sought the permit so that it could horizontally drill and run a pipeline about 40 feet below 76 feet of wetlands along the South Prong Wicomico River. State wetlands officials said the proposal and the addition of some special conditions required by the state met all of the requirements for approving the permit.
Bill Morgante, state wetlands administrator, said most of the comments in opposition to the project “cited reasons not related to the wetland crossing of the South Prong” and couldn’t be considered, including the impacts on climate change and a preference for renewable energy options at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and the state prison.
Environmental groups for weeks had been pushing to block the permit and the pipeline, making thousands of phone calls and emails to the governor’s office, Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot.
Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, said climate change and energy equity for “neglected” areas of the state should be considered when approving the permit.
“This is an energy equity issue but to offer somebody just the lesser of two evils in 2020, we know what environmentally friendly options look like, and burning fossil fuels is not environmentally friendly,” said Tulkin, calling the Court of Appeals ruling that limits the board’s actions “a technicality.”
Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who chaired the Board of Public Works meeting in place of Gov. Larry Hogan, rejected many of the calls and emails saying they came from people who either didn’t live in the area or who had the ability to choose natural gas or other energy sources.
“This really gets under my skin, because I think it goes to the elitism of people who live in an area where they can make choices that are trying to make the choices for people who don’t and then subjecting them to fuel that is polluting their environment, breathing in these emissions,” said Rutherford.
State officials, including Morgante, Rutherford and attorneys for the state, said the state and the board were handcuffed by court rulings on a Kent County development case in which the board rejected a wetlands permit for the Four Seasons project. Morgante said that 2012 Court of Appeals ruling prohibits his office or the Board of Public Works from considering anything other than what would “preserve the wetlands and prevent their disfoliation” and cannot be based on other considerations.
“I’ve looked at this very carefully,” said Morgante. “This is a very difficult project to comment on for me personally but I guess I honestly feel that the focus of why this license is before the Board of Public Works is because it’s a wetlands license. I just really strongly believe that the impacts, what should really be looked at and evaluated, is the impact to the wetlands.”
Both Franchot and Kopp expressed concerns about the use of natural gas. Franchot, who ultimately voted to approve the permit, criticized the Court of Appeals decision and Morgante’s assessment of the board’s limited role.
“I understand where you’re coming from, and I understand where the court is coming from, I just want to register my strong disagreement,” said Franchot, adding: “I would just suggest that that the Board of Public Works is not limited to those specific parameters. People can disagree with me.”
Somerset County, the most economically disadvantaged county in Maryland, is just one of three counties that does not have access to natural gas. The new pipeline will extend natural gas service to the Eastern Correctional Institute and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which would use the gas to replace power generation currently done with burning of wood chips and diesel fuel, respectively.
Heidi Anderson, president of the university, said the pipeline is part of a range of efforts the college is undertaking including solar and wind energy. The use of natural gas would allow the college to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 38% and reduce prison emissions by 65%.
Anderson said the county is also home to some of the greatest health care disparities in the state. Emergency room visits for children with asthma is two times that of other areas of the state.
“For the people of Somerset County, the poorest county of this state, it will allow us to being to help the health issues that impact them from the use of these dirty fuels that are used on the shore,” she said.