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 Co. 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 Corp., will also offer natural gas to commercial and residential customers along the way. In addition, through an agreement with CleanBay Renewables, 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 feet 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.
A Democrat who is an announced candidate for governor, Franchot also said Somerset County is economically disadvantaged and never had the benefits of natural gas like other parts of the state which “quite frankly is an economic injustice to the residents who live there.”
He recalled that when he was in the House of Delegates and it voted in favor of wood chips being burned at ECI, “We thought we were doing something good for the environment, instead it turned out to be the opposite.”
Treasurer Nancy Kopp said she agreed with 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.
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.
Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said at ECI alone eliminating 50,000 tons of wood chips being burned will reduce particulate pollution by 99 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 65 percent. The CO2 reduction at UMES is estimated to be 38 percent. That will have far-reaching advantages to residents in addition to providing them an additional choice of fuel, he said.
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, 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 Anderson, as president of an historically Black university, was not aware of, noting that Salisbury has had natural gas since 1959.
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 session. As an elected official, past NAACP president, and pastor, he said 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.”
For Somerset County to be a good economic resource for the entire state, it needs this opportunity. “We’re not looking for a handout, just looking for a hand. We have the opportunity for UMES to progress, we have the opportunity to reduce the pollution impact on our environment” and improve the health of the citizens.
The BPW’s ruling includes time-of-year restrictions, coordination with the U.S. 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,” Quinn said. “Nothing in this project prohibits solar or wind wherever it’s allowed in Somerset County.”
Here are answers from officials at Chesapeake Utilities to some of the most commonly asked questions about the project:
Q. Where does the pipeline run now from north to south?
A. The existing Eastern Shore Natural Gas transmission line extends from Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, to Salisbury, Berlin, Easton, Hurlock, and Cambridge, Maryland.
Q. Where will the southbound extension begin?
A. The transmission line extension begins near 500 Commerce St., in Salisbury.
Q. Is it all along current rail rights of way?
A. The designed path is primarily along current railroad and highway rights of way.
Q. About how many businesses in Salisbury are served by the existing line?
A. The Eastern Shore Natural Gas transmission line currently delivers natural gas to serve one customer in Salisbury, Chesapeake Utilities, which is the natural gas distribution company that serves Wicomico County and the Salisbury/Fruitland area.
Chesapeake Utilities delivers natural gas to more than 1,500 small and large businesses in the Salisbury/Fruitland area and also provides service to other towns on the Eastern Shore such as Cambridge and Hurlock.
Q. How many customers do you expect to add along the new line?
A. Chesapeake Utilities has contacted all of the large industrials along the design route of the project. We look forward to adding those companies as well as residential accounts to the list of customers we serve.
Within the first year after the line is completed, our goal is 13 commercial and industrial customers, including Eastern Correctional Institution and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, both in Somerset County. Small businesses and residential customers will benefit from affordable delivered natural gas as well.
Q. Is all of the pipeline underground?
A. The 6.83 miles of transmission line is an underground installation, with greater than 95 percent of it underground. It briefly surfaces at two above ground facilities where it ties into the existing transmission line and the second is where it connects to the distribution system.
The same is true for the distribution system, it is primarily underground except where it receives natural gas from the transmission company and where it delivers natural gas to customers.
Reporter Liz Holland contributed to this story.