Texaco's search for natural gas or oil in the Chesapeake Bay region is coming under challenge on two fronts today, as opponents argue that it could wreak environmental havoc in the already stressed estuary.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation says it is appealing last month's decision by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to issue Texaco Inc. a permit to drill an exploratory well near Faulkner in Charles County.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tom McMillen, D-Md, says he plans to introduce a bill to prohibit extraction of oil in the Chesapeake region. Texaco is also drilling in Virginia.
The bay foundation, which has 40,000 members in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, is asking DNR for a new hearing on the Texaco well permit. Unlike the first hearing, this would be a quasi-legal proceeding at which both sides may present evidence and cross-examine witnesses.
The state must grant such an "adjudicatory" hearing within 30 days if the party requesting it has legal standing to appeal a DNR permit. The Annapolis-based bay foundation has about 300 members who live in Charles County, according to Jane Nishida, its Maryland director.
The foundation also wants DNR to hold up Texaco's drilling permit until the appeal is resolved.
"The governor and DNR obviously have invested a lot in the restoration of the bay," said Nishida. "The decision to grant a permit could have significant and irreversible consequences for that restoration."
The bay foundation contends that DNR officials failed to consider the potential environmental harm that could result from well blowouts or fires, from pipeline breaks or tanker spills if Texaco finds oil or gas in its exploratory drilling.
Texaco's environmental impact assessment focused only on the exploratory well and did not project possible consequences of producing and transporting gas or oil.
DNR officials said Texaco's permit only allows exploratory drilling, and the company will have to address such issues before its permit would be modified to allow production.
DNR is considered unlikely to grant the bay foundation's request for a stay of Texaco's permit, and may not even hear the environmental group's appeal.
C. Edmon Larrimore, chief of DNR's minerals, oil and gas division, said that DNR must stay a permit only if it is likely the appeal will succeed. And DNR must also decide if the foundation's members are affected enough by the proposed well to give them standing to appeal.
The permit allows Texaco to drill a well 10,000 feet deep in a farm field near Faulkner in Charles County, where oil company officials say they expect to find natural gas rather than oil -- if they find anything at all.
The company does not plan to begin drilling in Maryland until later this year because it is sinking a similar exploratory well across the Potomac River in Westmoreland County, Va. Texaco also has a permit to drill in Virginia's King George's County. A well drilled in 1989 in Westmoreland County turned up traces of gas, but not enough to be marketable.
DNR officials say Texaco will take precautions to prevent pollution from getting into Popes Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River about 500 yards from the 4.5-acre Charles County drilling site.
The company says it will build an earthen levee around the well to collect any fluids from it, along with any rain or snow that falls on the site. The liquids will be shipped to a licensed disposal facility. Only fresh water and non-toxic materials will be used in the drilling operation, Texaco says.
McMillen, who has urged Texaco to halt its drilling and has lobbied Maryland officials to deny the permit, said he is "trying to put some pressure on Texaco" with his planned legislation.
"Although they said they're not looking for oil, it's pretty apparent if they find oil, it's not going to sit in the ground," McMillen said.
He said he still had to work out some "technical difficulties" with the bill.
However, McMillen noted that Congress has intervened to block drilling in environmentally sensitive areas before. It imposed a moratorium on offshore exploration on the West Coast, in Florida and Alaska. Congress also defeated an energy bill last year that would have opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling.