Supporters and opponents of a proposed natural gas export facility in Calvert County turned out by the dozens to a Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis on Wednesday. What was supposed to be a hearing about a relatively small permitting matter turned into nothing less than a referendum on the entire project.
Virginia-based Dominion Energy wants modify its natural gas import facility at Cove Point so that the company can export liquefied natural gas to overseas markets. The plan has raised big questions – about climate change and the future of the energy economy, about whether natural gas is a bridge fuel to a cleaner energy mix or just another way to maintain our addiction to dirty fossil fuels – but the question at hand was whether to give a permit for a temporary pier to Dominion so the company could bring in equipment.
Despite Gov. Martin O’Malley’s admonition that the meeting should focus solely on the merits of the permit – “we’re kind of hemmed in” by the requirements of the process, he told his fellow board members and the audience – at least equal time was spent debating the pros and cons of the proposed export facility as was spent on whether Dominion's plan to rebuild the oyster bed underneath the proposed pier would be satisfactory.
“Obviously, this is a very significant project,” said Comptroller Peter Franchot as explanation for why he didn’t want to limit the scope of the board’s inquiry to a permit for temporary construction in protected wetlands. ”Economically I think it’s even bigger than the keystone pipeline.”
Before the meeting started, those for and those against the proposed plan held rallies to make their cases.
Environmentalists and home-owners who live near to the Cove Point facility turned out to ask Gov. O’Malley to stall the project and demand more rigorous environmental and safety reviews. They question the long-term impact of exporting natural gas and the hydraulic fracturing that has created a boom in gas extraction. They also cite safety concerns.
“There haven’t been the proper studies done to consider what are the risks to the community nearby.” Said Emily Wurth from Food and Water Watch.
Supporters -- mostly from building trades unions – said the project should be approved because it would mean thousands of construction jobs in an economy that is still anemic.
These are jobs that are going to pay good wages, health benefits, retirement benefits,” said Mark Coles with the Community Hub for Opportunities in Construction Employment. “It’s a long term project, it’s going to put a lot of people to work.”
In the end, the board approved Dominion’s pier permit. State regulators have already approved the larger project and federal regulators are expected to give final approval next month.