The Maryland Board of Public Works voted Wednesday to approve a key environmental license for an Eastern Shore pipeline project that would extend natural gas service to Somerset County — particularly to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and the Eastern Correctional Institute.
The nearly 7-mile buried pipeline has received fierce opposition from environmentalists, who say constructing it would mean disregarding the state’s commitment to renewable energy. Local advocates, meanwhile, argue that Somerset County, one of the state’s poorest, deserves access to natural gas infrastructure so it can attract meaningful economic development. Further, they say natural gas would mean greener energy for both the university and prison, which currently use dirtier fuels like propane.
Opponents noted the pipeline is planned to run through numerous low-income communities and communities of color, groups that are inherently disproportionately impacted by climate change and would bear the brunt of any damage, leaks or spills caused by the pipeline.
Many environmental advocates hoped a “no” vote from the board on Wednesday could spur state officials to evaluate renewable energy solutions for Somerset, like wind, geothermal and solar power.
Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford, Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot all voted to approve the wetlands license for the project. Rutherford presided over the meeting of the three-member board in place of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Rutherford is also a Republican, while Kopp and Franchot are Democrats.
State wetlands administrator Bill Morgante said that the board was only ruling on the project’s impact on the wetlands it would run through — not its overall environmental impact.
The Eastern Shore Natural Gas Co., a subsidiary of Chesapeake Utilities Corp., would drill beneath the South Prong of Salisbury’s Wicomico River, meaning the impact on the wetlands would likely be minimal, Morgante said.
“The horizontal directional drill will go under the South Prong, so there’s actually zero wetlands plants that would be affected by this,” Morgante said.
Morgante cited a 2012 court ruling on a previous Board of Public Works decision regarding a wetlands license for the Four Seasons housing development project on Kent Island. In that case, Maryland’s highest court ruled that the board “applied an incorrect legal standard by considering the broader environmental impact of the project as a whole,” instead of simply considering the project’s impact on state wetlands.
Franchot initially said he considered this interpretation too narrow, but ultimately voted in favor of the pipeline.
“This is a reed too thin to stand on as far as approving a project like this that has so much public concern,” Franchot said, adding that his office received more than 4,000 emails from people opposed to the pipeline.
Morgante said most of the public comments received on the wetlands permit did not pertain to the project’s specific impact on the South Prong.
Rutherford expressed concern that many of those opposed to the pipeline were living in areas that already have access to natural gas — unlike residents of Somerset County.
“I see it as elitism,” Rutherford said.
All three board members said it’s reasonable to use natural gas as a bridge fuel toward renewable energy as they voted to approve the pipeline. Under a bill passed in 2019, half of Maryland’s energy is to come from renewable sources by 2030.
“While we are all working towards renewable energy sources, they’re not quite there yet to be able to provide heat and fuel to the two largest employers in Somerset County,” Rutherford said.
The University of Maryland Eastern Shore would likely reap significant savings from the project, said university President Heidi Anderson, and those savings could be reinvested in expanding the Princess Anne campus’s renewable energy usage.
But environmental activists said they had hoped the county could skip natural gas altogether.
“This is not a bridge fuel,” said Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club. “A bridge would be a year or two. This is going to be a multidecade investment.”
Charles Glass, interim director of the Maryland Environmental Service, said his agency only considered a natural gas pipeline, rather than renewable energy projects, because of the specific energy needs of the Eastern Correctional Institute in Westover. He argued that a power outage caused by a less stable fuel source would be a security risk.
“Eastern Correctional Institute needs an uninterruptible, stable source of fuel,” Glass said.
Proponents of the pipeline were heartened by a proposal from Chesapeake Utilities that it would use anaerobic digestion to break down agricultural waste to produce natural gas to be transported by the pipeline.
The board also voted to compel the utility company to contribute $190 per year in compensation to the state’s Wetlands and Waterways Program Fund, which regulates the draining, dredging and filling of wetlands and other waterways in the state.
It’s an annual contribution of $2.50 per linear foot of pipeline (a total of 76 feet) that would run through or beneath tidal wetlands, according to Board of Public Works documents.
The project has two parts, and the wetlands license for the second segment of the pipeline could be reviewed by the board in the coming weeks. Afterward, the Maryland Department of the Environment will review the parts of the project that aren’t related to tidal wetlands.