ANNAPOLIS — Despite personal feelings against natural gas as a fuel source the Maryland Board of Public Works was unanimous in granting a tidal wetlands permit that allows the Eastern Shore Natural Gas Company to install a pipeline from Salisbury to Eden.
This is the first leg of a plan to bring methane into Somerset County, ending at Eastern Correctional Institution with a spur to UMES. It will allow the prison to discontinue burning wood chips as its fuel for the cogeneration plant and the university to transition away from propane and fuel oil.
ESNG’s parent company Chesapeake Utilities Corporation will also offer natural gas to commercial and residential customers along the way. In addition, through an agreement with CleanBay Renewables Inc., it will receive methane in Westover produced through the anaerobic digestion of poultry manure.
The 10-inch diameter pipeline in Wicomico County will run south nearly 7 miles with 76 linear feet directionally drilled 28 ft. under the South Prong of the Wicomico River. That was the limit of the BPW’s vote but it did not stop some 40 comments being sent to the board — with half opposed to the extension of fossil fuel produced by fracking.
Comptroller Peter Franchot said his vote was not in favor of methane but instead acknowledged the benefits there will be to the environment and economy because of what it is replacing.
“This is critical that this vote not be interpreted as an endorsement for fossil fuels or long-term dependence on natural gas,” he said. “This is a temporary measure,” as the state moves forward to more clean renewable energy sources.
Treasurer Nancy Kopp said she agreed with Mr. Franchot, and as a member of the Climate Change Commission already voiced her desire to move entirely toward electricity. “Neither the comptroller nor I like this,” she said, but the issue is the wetlands permit which was endorsed with conditions to include an independent monitor at the time of the drilling.
“It will not despoil the wetlands,” she said, “and we’re limited” to that specific item. But it will reduce the cost of energy and carbon emissions at ECI and UMES, with the university using its savings to further utilize renewable energy.
“This will be a short bridge” and natural gas shouldn’t be used “any longer than necessary,” the treasurer said.
UMES President Dr. Heidi Anderson said the university is expanding its use of solar energy and geothermal technology especially in its health professions complex now under construction. Natural gas she said will allow consumers “to get rid of the two dirtiest fuels” and the university’s costs will be cut in half from the $21 per BTU it pays today.
Dr. Anderson said the savings “will be put into cleaner energy sources,” and to address health issues that are the result of using fuel oil and propane.
Opponents who addressed the BPW during its virtual meeting Dec. 2 included Josh Tulkin, director of the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter. He asked the board to reject the permit, because to move from wood chips to methane “is just the lesser of two evils.” “There are clean, renewable options available,” he said.
If board members were unwilling to vote it down, Mr. Tulkin requested it be tabled and taken up when the wetlands permit request for the Somerset County pipeline is considered. That 10.75 mile long 8-inch diameter pipe will cross three tidal tributaries and while endorsed by the Department of the Environment’s Wetlands Administration the final decision is also with the BPW.
In addition to environmental groups, the permit was opposed by Salisbury City Council members and the regional NAACP — which Dr. Anderson as president of an historically Black university was not aware of, noting that Salisbury has had natural gas since 1959.
Lt. Gov. Rutherford, sitting in for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, said opposition from those who live out of the area “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 subjecting them to fuel that is polluting their environment.”
“By doing this conversion, according to the experts, it’s like taking 11,000 vehicles off the road. Doesn’t that have an effect on greenhouse gas emissions?” “Elitism bothers me,” the lieutenant governor said.
On behalf of Somerset County, Commissioner President Craig Mathies Sr. was one of the last speakers to address the board during the 3-hour marathon session. As an elected official, past NAACP president, and pastor, he sympathizes with many who spoke ahead of him, “but I’m listening to the haves tell the have nots what you’re not entitled to,” especially from so many “who do not live here.”
The BPW’s ruling includes time-of-year restrictions, coordination with the Coast Guard and other agencies including the approval of any additional permits, having an independent monitor onsite when work is occurring, offering water quality testing to landowners, and having a protocol for citizen complaints.
Wetlands Administrator Bill Morgante added three additional measures, including maximum fluid pressure limits when directional drilling takes place and the actions to take if that level is reached. He said this is consistent with past similar projects in state tidal wetlands.
Construction could start as soon as January.
Brian Quinn, representing ESNG, said just as electricity customers can choose to purchase only renewably-sourced electricity those who use natural gas will also be able to select “certificated differentiated natural gas” which is certified that it comes from non-fracked sources.
This natural gas pipeline “doesn’t preclude renewable (energy) development,” Mr. Quinn said. “Nothing in this project prohibits solar or wind wherever it’s allowed in Somerset County.”