A proposed ban on liquefied natural gas terminals in Baltimore County drew support from community leaders and opposition from representatives of a Virginia energy company yesterday in Towson.
But whether a county law prohibiting the project would affect the federal government's approval process for a terminal proposed for Sparrows Point remains unclear.
AES Corp. wants to build a tanker terminal, as well as a pipeline from the area to Pennsylvania, for transporting natural gas along the East Coast.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which reviews and approves such projects, began holding public hearings on the Sparrows Point facility plans last week. A decision on whether the facility can be built wouldn't come until after AES submits a formal application in the fall.
Residents and elected leaders from three levels of government strongly oppose AES's plans. This year, a bill sponsored by Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. to stop the LNG plant failed in the state legislature. The Dundalk Democrat is helping to convene a government task force to study the effect of LNG facilities.
County Council Chairman John A. Olszewski Sr. has proposed what could effectively be a countywide ban -- limiting natural gas facilities to industrial sites at least five miles away from homes. The council is scheduled to vote on the bill Monday.
Olszewski said he hopes to delay AES' plans at the least.
"If I'm going to make it another loop they have to go through to get that permit, that's what I'm doing," Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat, said before a council work session yesterday.
A spokeswoman for the federal energy commission said yesterday that a local government's ban on LNG facilities would not disqualify an application, but it would be one of many factors considered during the review.
John E. Beverungen, the county government's top attorney, said he knows of a case in which a court knocked down local laws aimed at restricting the operation of LNG facilities. He pointed out that even if the federal government approves the AES plans, county government officials could withhold permits under the ban, forcing the company to go to court.
Sharon Beazley, leader of a community group opposing the LNG facility, told council members that residents shouldn't have to deal with any risks associated with such a terminal.
"For 100 years our community has dealt with pollution and toxins," said Beazley, among about half a dozen residents who testified at the council session.
Community organizer Fred Thiess said, "These monstrous ships are going to be sitting in front of these people's homes, and they'll be living in fear the rest of their lives."
But AES representatives called fears of explosions and terrorist attacks unfounded.
"There's never been an accident at an LNG transit vessel that resulted in deaths, period," said Kent Morton, project director for the Arlington-based company.
Company officials said the federal approval process for facilities is designed to allow communities and companies to work together.
"The process is designed to listen to those concerns" of residents, Morton said. "If they can't be addressed, a project like this will not see approval."
AES representatives told the council yesterday that the plan would bring the county several millions of dollars a year in property taxes, as well as generate scores of millions of dollars in the local economy.
"This is a clean industry," said Morton, adding that "natural gas is the most environmentally preferred fuel."
Another company official pointed to an article in Monday's Wall Street Journal that quoted industry experts as saying that the failure to build natural gas terminals along the East Coast could drive up consumer heating and electricity bills.
County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who did not attend the work session, said he supports the ban, despite questions about whether federal law would preempt it.
"This would be another definitive statement that this is the wrong location" for the project, Smith said.