Scrutiny in the county

The Baltimore Sun

In a decision that had all the surprise of snow in January, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week gave conditional approval to the proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal and pipeline at Sparrows Point. The agency's choice to side with AES Corp., despite significant environment and community concerns, could be predicted months, if not several years, ago.

Certainly, the fact that the 98-page order was issued over the objections of at least two federal agencies that called for a delay, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was no shock. The U.S. Coast Guard has expressed some concerns about the project as well. That mattered little to the commissioners at FERC who generally prefer to give the go-ahead to LNG terminals ASAP and let the specifics of such niceties as security and harm to local flora and fauna get settled later.

What does one call it when a project is approved in the waning hours of the Bush administration despite near-unanimous opposition from the affected communities and Maryland's elected leaders? It is the equivalent of Kabuki theater - colorful and highly exaggerated conflict that doesn't always make sense. It would be entertaining if so much weren't at stake in the debate.

Fortunately, the FERC order is far from the final word. Opponents could drag out this fight for years. Surely, there's an argument to be made when an agency's poodle-like attitude toward regulating industry makes the Securities and Exchange Commission look like a veritable pit bull with a taste for financiers.

One of the toughest hurdles for AES to overcome involves the thousands of tons of contaminated mud and silt that would have to be dredged to give LNG tankers sufficient room to maneuver in the shallow waters. Such permits are difficult to obtain under the best of circumstances.

Some building trade unions are blindly backing the project and want Gov. Martin O'Malley, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and others to end their opposition. Shame on them for putting their desire for some short-term, dues-paying jobs over the long-term welfare of eastern Baltimore County.

Even in a recession, Maryland shouldn't be forced to compromise the safety of its residents or the quality of its environment unless some truly compelling national interest is at stake. The Sparrows Point project doesn't even begin to meet that standard when there are so many other options to supply the region's - and the nation's - natural gas needs.

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