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Court Decision Could Delay Cove Point Export Project

Courtesy of Dominion Energy

Opponents of a proposed natural gas export facility in Southern Maryland are claiming a win in a Monday court ruling that may delay the project. But the company behind the $3.8 billion retrofit says that they don’t foresee any delays caused by the ruling.

Virginia-based Dominion Energy wants to retrofit its Cove Point liquid natural gas import facility in Lusby so it can also export the gas. Cove Point would be the first liquefied natural gas exporting terminal on the East Coast. A natural gas boom fueled by new drilling techniques has led to a handful of proposed export terminals.

In 2013, the Calvert County Board of Commissioners voted to exempt the Dominion’s Cove Point facility from zoning ordinances, which helped to move the project along. But the Calvert County Circuit Court ruled Monday that the commissioners did not have the authority to make the exemption.

Chesapeake Climate Action Network president Mike Tidwell says that before the ruling, the project looked like a done deal pending a final federal go-ahead. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission offered a favorable initial environmental report, but has yet to issue its final approval. Last month, Maryland’s Board of Public Works voted to approve a permit for a temporary dock that will allow Dominion to bring in equipment to do the construction work, marking the last state approval the energy company needed before moving ahead.

“This is the first sand that’s spilled into the gears, and it could be very significant in delaying this project,” Tidwell said.

Tidwell says the ruling affirms criticism that the commissioners were "cutting dangerous corners"  by exempting Dominion from the county's zoning ordinance in order to advance the project. And he says that while the ruling could delay the project for some months, he doesn’t think that it can stop it.

Dominion spokesman Neil Neddenien says the company is still reviewing the ruling, but doesn’t foresee any delays.

“The county commissioners have been unanimously behind the project but they also have been doing their best to ensure that everything is going according to regulations on the local, the state and the federal level,” Neddenien said.

The lawsuit was filed by Accokeek, Mattawoman, Piscataway Creeks Council and a handful of local residents. Kelly Canavan, the group’s president, says that while the lawsuit focused on whether the commissioners were giving a special treatment by exempting Dominion from the county’s zoning laws, it is part of a movement against the Cove Point expansion. She says expanding Cove Point will add to the demand for natural gas drawn by hydraulic fracturing from the Marcellus Shale, part of which is buried underneath Western Maryland.

“Cove Point is such a big project that it has this huge ripple effect,” Canavan said “A lot of people really feel like Cove Point opens up Maryland to drilling, and that is really not okay.”

Environmentalists and many Lusby residents who live nearby the gas terminal have opposed the project, saying that it is unsafe and diverts attention from developing greener energy sources. But it's been backed by labor groups and by local and state officials who see it as an economic boon to the county.

In the ruling, Judge Salmon writes that, while the issue of whether Dominion should be able to build the export terminal is “quite controversial,” his decision is not intended to weigh in on the merits of the proposal. Instead, he writes, he is simply looking whether the commissioners have the right to exempt specific companies or projects in zoning law. And he said they do not.

Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.