LNG is no certainty

The Baltimore Sun

Officials at AES Corp. and others who advocate for the proposed liquefied natural gas terminal at Sparrows Point would be wise to view the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision not to take up the matter as a minor victory at best.

While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is most likely going to eventually approve the LNG facility at the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard as well as the connecting 88-mile gas pipeline - perhaps even within a matter of weeks - it's far too early to plan a groundbreaking in 2009.

Before construction can even be contemplated, there are a host of items that require approval, including the final environmental impact statement, state wetland license and water quality certification. And you can bet that Gov. Martin O'Malley, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and members of Maryland's congressional delegation will object to each and every one of them, virtually ensuring the matter will drag out for years.

Call it the passive-aggressive defense, but Mr. Smith isn't even letting county officials meet with AES to discuss such concerns as security and emergency response needs. If there's a door that can be shut on the project, he has apparently decided, it should be closed, locked, dead-bolted and a chair propped against it - at least until some federal judge or official orders the county to make accommodations.

That may strike some as harsh, but Mr. Smith and other opponents have a point. Deciding where LNG terminals can be built shouldn't be up to FERC alone. The Bush administration has a poor record in regulatory matters, particularly involving the energy industry.

Opponents have legitimate concerns about Sparrows Point from the impact of local dredging to the security implications of having large LNG tankers so far up the Chesapeake Bay. The former requires finding a site to dispose of millions of cubic yards of contaminated soil, and the latter may mean disrupting marine traffic to give the ships a wide berth.

Perhaps many of these can be solved. But solutions haven't been offered, and a temporary holding pattern may be just what the project needs to give the next administration time to develop its energy policy - and perhaps allow states a greater say in where LNG facilities ought to be located.

The appeal rejected by the Supreme Court was on a relatively minor point involving local land-use planning and federal pre-eminence. Much more is left to be resolved, and it's hard to see that happening in the near future no matter how FERC rules.

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