Maryland Board of Public Works votes down 'fracked gas' pipeline through Western Maryland

The Maryland Board of Public Works unanimously rejected Wednesday plans for a pipeline that would carry fracked natural gas through three miles of Western Maryland, after years of environmentalists and neighbors fighting the project.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, both Democrats, voted against a needed easement for the pipeline, citing concern for the environment.

“We were going to subject our state to all the environmental problems of this pipeline and get none of the economic benefits,” Franchot said. “This became a fairly big issue.”

Despite a state agency’s recommendation that Columbia Gas Transmission, which is owned by energy company TransCanada Corp., receive permission to build the pipeline through Washington County, board members were inundated with testimony against the project, including a letter from 62 state lawmakers.

Franchot called the testimony “compelling.”

“We urge you to deny TransCanada’s proposal to build a gas pipeline through Maryland,” the lawmakers wrote. “We believe this project would reverse course on our state’s efforts to protect the health of our residents and combat climate change. … Given that Maryland has banned fracking, it defies our state’s existing energy policy to bring the same public health risks to our residents by way of a pipeline.”

The letter, organized by Montgomery County Del. David Moon, a Democrat, was signed by Democrats from around the state, including seven from Baltimore.

Hogan signed Maryland’s ban of fracking, a natural gas harvesting technique that involves injecting liquids at high pressure underground to force out the gas, in 2017.

“The construction and operation of the Potomac Pipeline would impact at least 10 wetlands and 19 streams, in addition to the Potomac River,” the letter stated. “The pipeline right-of-way includes a Potomac River crossing through the C&O Canal and the Western Maryland Rail/Trail. In addition to violating the spirit of our renewable energy portfolio and fracking ban, the TransCanada pipeline also directly endangers public health.”

A TransCanada official said the company would explore its options in light of the board’s decision.

“Today’s vote denying our easement request is unfortunate,” said Scott Castleman, a company spokesman. “That being said, it does not change the need for, or the company’s commitment to, our Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project. It remains critical for West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle and the surrounding region, and will provide much-needed additional natural gas supplies for continued business and economic development.”

While Franchot cited the lawmakers’ letter in discussing his vote, Hogan did not explain his vote except to say the legislators had nothing to do with his decision.

“We were always going to have a 3-0 vote,” the governor said. “It had nothing to do with any letter from the legislature, I can assure you.”

A Hogan spokeswoman declined to elaborate after the vote.

Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources had urged approval of the easement for the pipeline through a small portion of Washington County owned by state government.

The pipeline would transport fracked gas from Pennsylvania to a new plant in West Virginia. More than 13,000 people have signed a petition opposing the proposed plant in Jefferson County, West Virginia.

About 35 people, including some from Western Maryland and West Virginia, attended the Maryland Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis to oppose the deal.

Brent Walls, the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, said he was shocked by the board’s unanimous vote.

“We had no idea it would be a 3-0 vote. We’ve been fighting this pipeline for two years,” Walls said. “If the pipeline leaks, which they do leak, it’ll get into people’s well water. I’m ecstatic.”

In a statement, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network called Hogan’s vote “dramatic and surprising.” Last year, the Hogan administration pushed a plan to increase use of natural gas in the state.

“Today, he took a step in the right direction by rejecting a permit for a dangerous fracked-gas pipeline proposed by TransCanada,” said Brooke Harper, Maryland director for the climate network. “Hopefully, this signals a reversal of the governor’s prior policy of promoting fracked gas consumption and pipelines in Maryland.”

Castleman, of TransCanada, said the pipeline project has been “studied and scrutinized” for two years by groups including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

“This extensive process has confirmed that through proper design and construction our project can be completed in an environmentally responsible and safe manner,” he said. “We will consider our options over the coming days to keep this project on track.”

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