A Delaware utility wants to build a $33.6 million pipeline under the Chesapeake Bay that would pump natural gas from Cove Point in Southern Maryland to Cambridge on the Eastern Shore, and from there underground to Delaware.
Taking the first step in an elaborate approval process that ultimately will be decided by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, executives of the Eastern Shore Natural Gas Co. have informally briefed federal, state and local officials. The company is holding a public meeting in Cambridge tonight to describe the proposal to residents.
"We are already delivering natural gas by 330 miles of pipelines over most of the Delmarva area," said Elaine Bitter, a company vice president. "We've always been the local source for natural gas. We want to keep that reliability."
Eastern Shore Natural Gas is owned by Chesapeake Utilities Corp., whose Maryland and Delaware utility divisions serve about 45,000 customers, according to the company.
The project, called the Eastern Shore Energy Link Expansion, would be the largest expansion of the company's pipeline in Maryland since much of it was built nearly 50 years ago.
Federal regulators say the project is in what they call a "pre-filing" status, awaiting a two-part review by FERC investigators who will evaluate financial data as well as environmental issues.
The federal agency cooperates with state and local officials, but it will make the final ruling on the pipeline extension, said FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen.
"At this stage in the process, they are very seriously exploring the project and involving the public," Young-Allen said. "This is in the early stage."
A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is reviewing the pipeline proposal and has not yet taken a position.
According to company officials, the pipeline - made up of 24-inch pipe - would run under the bay to the Eastern Shore, then follow an underground path along utility rights of way on state Route 16 through rural towns such as Church Creek and Madison.
Beyond Cambridge, the pipeline would skirt north through Hurlock before connecting with an existing pipeline near Seaford, Del. If completed, the project would expand the capacity of the company's interstate pipeline system by about one-third.
Despite the rural character of the area, supporters say the pipeline would have a limited impact because it would be placed alongside current underground utility lines. The route also would steer the pipeline away from the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
But Doug Worrell, a longtime community activist, wondered whether the pipeline could cause problems for other environmentally sensitive areas.
"You don't want to take a position without knowing more," Worrell said. "It would definitely go through some sensitive areas, but if it's monitored correctly, it shouldn't be a big issue."
At least a few local officials got their first hint of the proposed pipeline when survey crews began work along two-lane Route 16, said Ronnie Reynolds, a town councilwoman in Church Creek.
"The surveyors wouldn't say who they were working for or for what project," Reynolds said. "I think, generally, we're opposed to it, at least until we get a better idea of what's involved. We just got a [grant] for new sidewalks and a new streetscape."
Company officials are working hard to stress that the pipeline would transport ordinary natural gas, not Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). An LNG plant proposed for Dundalk has drawn bitter opposition from nearby residents and elected officials.
Some environmentalists who have been briefed on the pipeline plan say that first impressions were positive.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation officials, for instance, have discussed moving the pipeline's path under the bay so as not to disrupt a big oyster bar or, if that's not feasible, replanting the reef.
"We don't have a position yet," said Kim Coble, the foundation's Maryland executive director. "We need to know a lot more details."