When Jean Marie Neal and her husband moved to Calvert County, Maryland, she knew natural gas was imported nearby at the Dominion Cove LNG plant.
“We did not object,” Neal says, “because we knew at that point the United States needed to import gas.” But now, with Dominion’s proposal to build a liquefied natural gas export terminal (LNG) on land not far from her neighborhood, Neal’s feelings on natural gas infrastructure have changed dramatically. “It’s not even for us,” she says.
Dominion Energy plans to obtain gas from Marcellus Shale frack fields in Pennsylvania and transport it via pipeline through the Old Line state. The proposed $3.8 billion Dominion Cove Point liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal, located in Lusby, Maryland, would liquefy more than 750 million cubic feet of natural gas per day for shipments to India and Japan.
Now Neal, formerly a chief of staff in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, represents the Cove of Calvert homeowners’ association. She says the residents of Cove Point are speaking up because they’re having trouble finding answers.
Neal echoes the sentiments of many Marylanders, who say their opposition to the Cove Point export plan is more than a NIMBY concern. It’s part of a larger debate about whose interests natural gas exports are really in — corporate interest or the public interest?
The Cove of Calvert community, where Neal lives, contains about 60 homes and is located on the Chesapeake Bay. The homeowners are familiar with potentially dangerous energy infrastructure: the community is just a short drive from the Dominion Cove Point LNG import terminal near Calvert Cliffs State Park, and not far from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, which experienced an unplanned shutdown of both reactors just last week.
Home mainly to retired couples and young families, Cove of Calvert is quiet and secluded, and many houses back directly onto the beach.
Dominion’s export terminal plans would bring more pollution, noise and industry to the area, according to Neal and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
In fact, research by the coalition shows Dominion’s proposed liquefaction facility “would emit more heat-trapping carbon dioxide than all but three of the state’s existing coal plants.” The entire LNG export process, the coalition says, would release more greenhouse gases than Maryland’s seven coal-fired power plants combined.
Neal says local government officials have not been receptive to homeowners’ concerns.
“Dominion and the County Board of Commissioners have done everything they could to keep the facts and details away from residents,” she says. “There have been no public hearings. Dominion is not a good neighbor: they did not reach out to our homeowners’ association across the street. They did not reach out to other [homeowners’ associations] in the area. We have repeatedly asked the county commissioners to hold hearings and they’ve turned us down.”
Before a hearing to exempt the proposed facility from zoning regulations, County Commissioner Susan E. Shaw posted on Facebook discouraging community attendance. “It is a waste of time to come to the zoning hearing if you have concerns about the Dominion Cove Point Project,” she wrote. “[Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] hearings will be held later. Of course, if you want to waste your time, feel free.”
Neal says that approach has people enraged. “The meeting after the vote, people were standing up and screaming ‘shame on you,'” she says. “These are local, mild-mannered people who are incensed by this. These are not environmentalists. These are local residents. There were elderly people talking about their fears and how they couldn’t get their questions answered.”
Residents are also upset by the proposed tax breaks for Dominion, which they see as essentially subsidizing the pollution of their community. In May, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed a law giving Calvert County the authority to discount Dominion’s taxes. Now, the matter rests in the commissioner’s hands. Neal, for one, doesn’t place much trust in her local officials.
Currently, only about 150 of the 1,000 acres owned by Dominion are used for industrial operations. The expansion, Neal says, “is going to turn the whole area into an industrial site.”
Pete Ide probably isn’t the first person you’d expect to oppose the Dominion Cove Point liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal.
“First of all, I have to be frank,” he says. “I depend on fossil fuels to make a living.” A charter boat captain on the Chesapeake Bay, Ide has fished his entire life. As such, he’s seen the decline in water quality and marine life in the Chesapeake firsthand.
“The water quality has been so bad these past two years, I had to move my boat because there weren’t any fish here,” he says. The dead zones get larger every year as algae blooms exacerbated by runoff from farm fertilizer, industrial livestock and poultry production eat up the oxygen marine life needs to survive.
Though the Dominion Cove Point LNG terminal won’t be dumping fertilizer, Ide says it will just be one more step in the degradation. “It’s not going to put me out of business,” he says, “but it’s another brick in the wall. It’s 49 more acres of heavy industrial build-out on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.”
Through seafood production and tourism, the Chesapeake Bay supports more than a trillion dollars of economic activity. The Calvert County shore in Maryland, where Dominion Energy plans to build the liquefaction facility, is home to wetlands and rare species of plants and animals, including migratory birds. Construction would require clearing forests and bringing in heavy construction materials on the Patuxent River.
Dominion Energy’s plans require constructing an on-site 130 megawatt power plant, storage units and a liquefaction facility. Upstream, pipelines, pier adjustments and compressor stations will need to be constructed or adapted for shipping natural gas.
When constructed, the facility will be the fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter in Maryland, and it won’t just be pumping out greenhouse gases. Nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulates are all byproducts of natural gas usage and are air pollutants regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act. The World Health Organization recognized the negative health effects of air pollution, such as cancer, earlier this year.
Needless to say, Ide is not just concerned about his livelihood.
“I think this is going to have a serious and profound impact on our quality of life here in Calvert County, certainly during the construction phase…when the construction phase is finished, the effects will be much more insidious and not as noticeable – unless you happen to live right in the area of the facility,” he says.
“That’s who I feel like I am fighting for more than anything at this point…I think this is a classic case of big fossil fuel business coming in and making backdoor deals with local businesspeople and politicians.”
In October 2013, a statewide poll commissioned by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network found that 81 percent of Marylanders believed a full environmental impact statement should be conducted for the proposed Cove Point expansion. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has not indicated any plans to conduct a full environmental impact statement and, according to environmental groups, the commission looks likely to use a less comprehensive environmental assessment.
The commission is not required to conduct an environmental impact statement for minor modifications, but environmental groups say Dominion Energy’s assertion that the project is minor is “misguided and absurd.”
In an October letter to Maryland state Governor Martin O’Malley, 122 local, state and national groups urged the governor to demand a full federal environmental impact assessment on the liquefaction expansion project.
Ide says regulators have only taken short-term economic concerns into consideration rather than the long-term impacts the facility will have on environmental quality and safety. There are restrictions in place to make sure construction is done safely along the shore, but Calvert County is considering exempting Dominion from local zoning regulations.
As someone observing the traffic on the Bay, Ide also worries about the potential for a BLEVE, an acronym for a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion. These explosions occur when a vessel holding a liquid pressurized above its boiling point suddenly ruptures. (The Quebec train disaster that killed 47 people in July is one example.)
The National Transportation Safety Board recently warned that a “major loss of life” could result from the increasing use of trains to carry crude oil.
The potential for explosions at LNG facilities and ships is still debated, although everyone agrees the risk is low. Still, Ide says, the risk is more than zero, and it increases with every extra gallon of liquefied natural gas and every extra tanker travelling through the Patuxent River and the Bay. Dominion Energy says it is committed to safety and has worked with Calvert County to institute emergency plans.
Then again, the risk of the Quebec train explosion and BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill were also considered minimal.
“We don’t have to try to scare people,” Ide says, “but on that note, I feel like our security is definitely threatened by that plant being there.”