Undeterred by an apparently dry well in northeastern Virginia, Texaco wants to cross the Potomac River into Maryland to continue its search for natural gas or oil in the Chesapeake Bay region.
Texaco officials say the company and a new partner plan to seek permission to drill an exploratory well 10,000 feet down in a cornfield less than 1 1/2 miles from the Potomac in Charles County.
Texaco and Eastern Virginia Gas Co. want to begin drilling by next fall at a three-acre site they have leased west of U.S. 301 about a half-mile south of Faulkner, said Texaco spokeswoman Deborah Alford.
Texaco's Maryland drilling plans, disclosed yesterday, drew a prompt attack from William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
"The governors, the legislators and the people of the Chesapeake region have spent a lot of time and money to try and get the bay back on the road to recovery," Baker said. "The last thing we need is a whole new form of insult to the bay."
Baker, whose Annapolis environmental group also opposed drilling in Virginia, vowed to try to block the proposed Maryland well.
Texaco officials must obtain state and county permits before drilling, and they pledged to take the same precautions to minimize the chances of polluting nearby streams as they did in drilling across the Potomac in Westmoreland Co., Va.
Texaco officials said they expect to find gas rather than oil in Maryland -- if they find anything at all.
In summer of 1989, Texaco, then in partnership with Exxon, would say only that no commercial quantities of oil or gas had been found when after spending $4 million and drilling for three months they quietly capped their exploratory well near Maple Grove, Va.
But Texaco's regional exploration manager said yesterday the rock fragments pumped from the well indicate the presence of gas and not oil.
"Ordinarily we wouldn't let that fact be known, but we think that environmentally that's such good news we think people will open their arms," said Jack Connelly, Texaco's regional manager for North America "frontier" exploration.
However, Baker remained skeptical. Though a gas leak poses less of a risk to the bay than does an oil spill, Baker said Texaco officials who briefed him yesterday could not assure him no oil would be found or pumped out if found.
Baker said he is worried about the potential for pollution and the destruction of environmentally sensitive sites if a big gas or oil discovery leads to a proliferation of wells and construction of a pipeline.
Texaco officials contend they will not harm the bay, and point to their track record with the Virginia well.
Drilling "muds" used to lubricate the well will be composed of non-toxic materials, said Doug Weaver, who is in charge of regulatory compliance for Texaco. A levee will be built around the drilling rig to prevent runoff of any fluids, including rainwater, Weaver said, and both the muds and runoff will be trucked away for disposal elsewhere.
Texaco is trying to learn the gas- or oil-bearing potential of the Taylorsville Basin, a narrow band of sedimentary rocks that stretches under the coastal plain from central Virginia northeast to Maryland's Eastern Shore. Though nothing has been found so far, a few similar geologic formations elsewhere in the world have yielded vast petroleum reserves.
Texaco has leased mineral rights on more than 200,000 acres in the two states, 65,000 of them in Maryland and 30,000 of them in Charles County, Weaver said.
Both Maryland and Virginia banned drilling on the bay and its tributaries in 1988, when oil companies first began doing seismic testing on land and water around the bay.
Prompted by a spate of oil tanker spills and the exploratory well, Virginia this year imposed a two-year moratorium on drilling in "preservation areas" bordering the bay while new laws and regulations to protect the environment are being developed.
In Maryland, the Critical Area Commission has approved draft regulations that would ban drilling within 500 feet of the bay and its tidal tributaries.
But the panel plans to ask the General Assembly to ban drilling altogether within 1,000 feet of the shoreline, said Elizabeth Zucker, the commission's scientific adviser.
"There's just too many sensitive resources in the critical area," said Zucker, and slant drilling can tap mineral resources under such areas from a distance.
Texaco officials said their proposed drilling site is well outside the 1,000-foot "critical area" along the Potomac, and contains no wetlands.
The site is near the headwaters of Popes Creek, which flows into the Potomac. Downstream of the drilling site near the Potomac, the state has designated land on either side of the creek for protection because of the presence of a bald eagle nest and a couple rare plants, said Janet McKegg, administrator of the Natural Heritage program in the Department of Natural Resources.
Maryland officials have been laboring since 1989 to update the state's 33-year-old regulations governing oil and gas drilling. Rules should be proposed early next year and in place by next fall, when Texaco hopes to start drilling, said Robert D. Miller, deputy director of DNR's Water Resources Administration.
"I believe that drilling for oil and gas in the state of Maryland can be done in an environmentally sound and safe manner," Miller said. "We have a great deal of experience . . . We're prepared to regulate the drilling so that it can take place, but take place in an appropriate manner."
As drafted, the rules would require applicants for a drilling permit to prepare an environmental impact assessment and to carry liability insurance of $1 million per well to cover any damage that might result from an accident.
Applicants also would have to put up a bond ranging from $100,000 to $500,000 to ensure that the site is properly reclaimed after the well is capped, Miller said.
Weaver said the companies would abide by and probably exceed any requirements set by the state, even if new regulations are not in place.
Baker acknowledged that Texaco and Exxon went to "extreme efforts" to prevent environmental harm at the Virginia well site in 1989, and he predicted they would take the same care with the Maryland well. But he questioned whether Texaco or other energy companies would be as careful if vast quantities of gas or oil are found.
"We can't be lulled into a sense of complacency by one test well done in a very careful, pollution-conscious fashion," Baker said. "The industry unfortunately got a reputation for promising everything, and once production occurs, changing their mode of operation."