A federal judge upheld a Baltimore County law yesterday that bans liquefied natural gas plants in some coastal areas, dealing what the county government described as a major blow to a company's plan to build such a facility at Sparrows Point.
U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett - who in a previous ruling struck down another county law designed to block the project - this time rejected a legal challenge from the company hoping to build the plant.
Opponents of global power company AES Corp.'s plans to build an LNG terminal at the old Bethlehem Steel shipyard stopped short last night of saying that the ruling would spell the proposal's death. But the judge's ruling appeared to be the biggest victory yet for residents who, pointing to safety concerns, have fought the project.
An attorney for the opponents called the ruling "a major body blow to AES," saying it validates the argument that the LNG plant would harm the environment.
"I have said from day one, that is the trump card for the state of Maryland," said the attorney, Bart S. Fisher. "At the end of the day, that is by far the strongest argument the state of Maryland has, if you put the LNG terminal in this critical zones area where you have all these endangered species, and the Chesapeake Bay is at risk."
Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who received news of the ruling while vacationing in West Virginia, called the ruling "a victory for the good guys and absolutely the right call by the federal judge."
"It's a heck of a nice way to start a vacation," said Smith, a second-term Democrat. "It's a health, safety and welfare issue, and that's what local government is responsible to provide."
AES to 'press forward'
Kent Morton, AES' manager for the Sparrows Point project, said that the company is considering an appeal, adding, "We're determined to press forward on this."
The company released a statement that read in part: "We will continue to explore all of our options in bringing a much-needed, clean-burning LNG facility to the area to serve Marylanders and the region."
It was not clear last night whether the county law, on its own, could block the project. A spokeswoman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission - which is considering, and would rule upon, AES' application - declined to comment on the judge's ruling.
Smith said he expects the company to proceed with its application before the commission, adding that he expected the panel to consider the county's environmental and zoning regulations, "and hopefully they will recognize ... the merit of our position and deny the license."
Sharon Beazley, who has helped lead her eastern Baltimore County community's fight against AES' plans, said that she was elated by yesterday's ruling but that she didn't expect it to end the battle.
"Eventually, we will find the silver bullet that will stop this lunacy," she said, adding: "I guess it depends on when they have decided they've spent enough."
In the 21-page opinion issued yesterday, Bennett rejected a constitutional challenge to the county law prohibiting LNG plants from environmentally sensitive coastal areas. The law, passed by the County Council in February, had been challenged by AES on the grounds that it was pre-empted by federal law and is unconstitutional.
At a hearing this month, a lawyer for AES said the law should be ruled invalid, because it "is a specific effort to single out LNG," which local governments may not do under federal energy law.
That day, the state's Critical Area Commission unanimously approved the county's prohibition on LNG facilities in certain coastal areas.
Yesterday's ruling came the same week the U.S. Senate rejected a measure that would have restored to states the authority to block new LNG terminals. The measure, rejected by a 56-37 vote, had been introduced by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.
That maneuver was but one of several legal tactics that have been undertaken by the proposal's opponents, who include area elected officials from all levels of government.
In June 2006, the Baltimore County Council passed a zoning ordinance prohibiting LNG facilities from being built within five miles of a home. The site of the proposed terminal on Sparrows Point is less than two miles from the historically black neighborhood of Turners Station.
In January, Bennett found that the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 trumped the county's law and ruled that the county could not enforce the ordinance.
AES has argued that the plant would provide jobs and help keep a lid on the price of energy.
"With more than 40% of Maryland's electricity being generated by natural gas, we expect to significantly impact consumers' energy bills once operational at Sparrows Point," AES said in the company's written statement last night. "And, experts estimate a 15 to 30% cost savings with LNG over piped-in natural gas."
AES, based in Arlington, Va., announced in January 2006 plans for a $400 million LNG terminal on the site of the former shipyard on Sparrows Point. The plan called for shipments of the super-chilled liquefied natural gas to arrive by tanker and the 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas to be pumped daily from the plant through an 87-mile pipeline to a distribution center in Pennsylvania.
Opponents have said the plan is too risky for a major population center and one of the busiest ports in the United States. Smith said he feared the possibility of an accident or terrorist attack, and was concerned about the environmental impact of dredging Bear Creek to accommodate the tankers carrying the gas.
When AES officials first met with residents and officials in eastern Baltimore County, community leaders said they were skeptical of the project. Dundalk-area residents became increasingly vocal and angry about the LNG plan and circulated petitions, put up lawn signs and created a staffed office to stop the project.