A year after fracking ban, Maryland Gov. Hogan's support for natural gas sparks new battle

A year after Maryland banned the controversial natural gas harvesting technique known as fracking, Gov. Larry Hogan is pushing to connect more homes in the state to gas lines, sparking a new battle over the fuel.

Hogan, who signed last year’s law, wants to require a Canadian energy company to invest more than $100 million in Maryland, including money to establish a program to make natural gas the primary energy source for more homes in the state.

The move has drawn fire from environmentalists. They say it’s hypocritical for Hogan, who has backed programs to fight global warming, to expand the use of natural gas. Proponents counter that using more natural gas would reduce the state’s reliance on fuels that produce more pollution.

The conflict, along with ongoing friction over a proposed gas pipeline beneath the Potomac River and the soon-to-open Cove Point natural gas terminal in Southern Maryland, is part of a larger debate about how the state should cut fossil fuel emissions and combat climate change.

Maryland has decided not to join in the nation’s fracking boom, but natural gas is poised to grow in the state nevertheless.

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles rejected suggestions that the Hogan administration is being inconsistent in its support for gas infrastructure. He called natural gas “a bridge fuel to a clean-energy future,” reducing dependence on dirtier fuels such as coal and heating oil while the use of wind, solar and other sources grows and costs fall.

“We have a very balanced approach,” Grumbles said.

Critics say the state should be doing more to uphold its environmental commitments. Hogan has endorsed a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 60 percent of 2006 levels by 2030, and said this year he would join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of states pledging to uphold the Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump has rejected.

Expanding the use of natural gas “runs counter to every other effort we’re doing in the state,” said state Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat. “When push comes to shove, he wants to continue the same old way of doing business.”

Hogan has proposed requiring Calgary-based AltaGas to invest in gas infrastructure in Maryland as a condition of its multibillion dollar acquisition of Washington Gas owner WGL Holdings Inc. Washington Gas serves more than 1 million residential, commercial and industrial customers in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

The Hogan administration has negotiated a settlement with AltaGas in which the company would pay $33 million to seed a new fund to expand the reach of natural gas across Maryland.

Such a fund would be a major natural gas initiative for the state energy administration. Its grants and incentive programs focus largely on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

AltaGas would also be required to invest $70 million in its Maryland infrastructure under the settlement, announced in December.

The settlement is now before the Maryland Public Service Commission, which is expected to act on it within the next month. Utility regulators in the District of Columbia are also considering the merger; Virginia officials have already approved it.

AltaGas says shifting households from older, dirtier sources of heat to natural gas can reduce their carbon emissions by half, so spreading the reach of natural gas can help clean the air while work continues on renewable energy technology and energy storage in batteries.

John O’Brien, president of AltaGas Services U.S., said the company is working in both of those areas as it also meets stringent carbon-reduction standards in California and across Canada.

“There are areas where, if you provide natural gas, you’re providing a more efficient fuel that is lower in carbon,” he said. “You still have to do that while people get to a more robust renewable future.”

But that argument isn’t passing muster with critics, who argue that as a fossil fuel, natural gas is no better than coal.

More than a dozen environmental, religious and voter advocacy groups, led by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, have told the commission that the gas expansion would be “contrary to the state’s investment in clean energy and greenhouse gas reductions, and not in Maryland’s interest.”

The surging gas industry is fueling similar conflicts around the country.

U.S. production and consumption of natural gas have grown steadily over the past decade as a result of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

In fracking, water, chemicals and sand are forced down wells to release natural gas stored within rock. Critics have raised concern about risks to groundwater — worries that have been backed up by Environmental Protection Agency research but that the industry rejects.

Like coal and oil, natural gas is the product of dead plants and animals pressed, heated and trapped deep within the Earth’s crust. But burning natural gas produces significantly less carbon dioxide than those other fossil fuels. That fact, and the plummeting prices that come with booming supply, have helped speed the fuel’s adoption.

Domestic natural gas production grew 9 percent from July to December, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Natural gas-fired electricity generation has grown by 10 percent over the past year — the same proportion as the decline in coal-powered generation.

With large stores of natural gas beneath states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, demand is growing for construction of pipelines and other infrastructure to move the fuel around the country and the world.

Environmentalists in Maryland are rallying against one such project: a pipeline proposed beneath the Potomac River. They acknowledge that natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than other fuels, but say the system that transports and distributes the gas to homes and businesses can leak methane into the air.

Carbon dioxide and methane are both greenhouse gases — they build up in Earth’s atmosphere and trap heat, but methane is far more potent.

To supply customers of West Virginia utility Mountaineer Gas, TransCanada — the Calgary-based energy company behind the controversial Keystone Pipeline — has proposed a 3.4 mile, 8-inch-wide natural gas pipeline that would stretch from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, crossing a narrow section of Maryland near Hancock in Washington County.

Demonstrators have stretched across the Potomac in kayaks and encircled Government House in Annapolis with signs and chants to protest the project. They want the Hogan administration to give it and other gas infrastructure proposals more scrutiny.

“They have the power to be a state agency that can take action in their own hands, and yet what the state agency has done lately is treat all of the applicants like clients,” said Brent Walls, the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper. “They’re representing their clients instead of the people of the state.”

The Maryland Department of the Environment asked the Army Corps of Engineers last month to hold off on its work to advance the Potomac project while the state conducts what Grumbles called “a robust review” to develop “provisions, conditions and safeguards” that protect the environment. That review continues.

Grumbles rejected criticism that regulators are falling short of their duties. He stressed that a safe and growing gas industry can be part of a larger plan to attack climate change.

“Their goal is block any pipeline,” he said. “Unless the administration bans any pipeline or stops investing in natural gas infrastructure expansion, [critics say] it’s hypocrisy, and that’s just ridiculous.”

The gas industry says it’s reducing carbon emissions associated with dirtier fuels while also cutting energy bills.

“We’re trying to satisfy the needs of the customers,” said Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council.

“Maryland doesn’t have to choose between environmental progress and affordable energy,” Cobbs wrote in a recent letter to The Baltimore Sun. “With the right infrastructure and practical policy choices, natural gas can help supply both.”

Some environmentalists and Southern Maryland residents are still fighting a project that they cannot stop: the long-planned liquefied natural gas terminal at Cove Point.

The gas exporting facility in Lusby is one of nearly a dozen that federal regulators have approved for the overseas export of natural gas that has been converted into a liquid. It’s expected to begin sending gas overseas this month.

For nine straight months, the terminal’s looming launch has prompted weekly protests from the group We Are Cove Point. The Southern Marylanders have been holding signs outside the State House and the governor’s mansion calling on Hogan to order what they call a safety study to quantify the likelihood and impacts of an explosion or other catastrophe.

Linda Morin held one end of a banner that read “Hogan values profits over lives.”

“I’m moving out of Lusby because I don’t want that risk,” she said.

The Hogan administration has not acquiesced. Dominion Energy officials said safety evaluations required under federal law include “a far more stringent review” than the type of study the protesters are asking for. State and local officials say they have minimized and prepared for any risks.

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