Cove Point deserves closer examination [Editorial]

There is nothing small or inconsequential about plans to build a liquefied natural gas export terminal at Cove Point in Southern Maryland's Calvert County. Dominion Resources wants to invest in the neighborhood of $3.8 billion to build the controversial facility, and officials claim its three-year construction will create jobs for as many as 3,000 people.

By any standard, that's a huge private investment in Maryland, and small wonder it's already gotten support from the county's elected officials, from Maryland's construction trade unions and from Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, one of this state's most powerful political figures. But it has also prompted opposition from an impressive coalition of environmental advocates who see the facility as a potential disaster for the state, for the Chesapeake Bay and for efforts to address climate change.

The stakes are high. Dominion is angling to build what could become the East Coast's chief LNG export facility, shipping billions of cubic feet of gas, now plentiful in the U.S., to energy-hungry Japan and India for a premium. The company has already gotten conditional permission to export gas to those countries from the U.S. Department of Energy.

But the ramifications are great, too. The project would create considerably more demand for gas recovered from hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," particularly from the Marcellus Shale deposit that extends into Maryland. It would undoubtedly raise gas prices and encourage more fracking, a technique that is itself environmentally suspect.

Converting natural gas into a liquid is itself an energy-intensive process, and Dominion would build a 130-megawatt power plant at Cove Point just to meet its needs, as well as dozens of miles of new gas pipelines and compressor stations to feed into the facility. Opponents calculate that Cove Point, once home to an LNG import terminal, will quickly become one of the state's largest producers of greenhouse gases, negating much of the effort Maryland has taken in recent years to decrease its carbon footprint.

The fight has so far been contentious. At a recent public hearing over a proposed tax break for the development, attendees raised concerns about the impact on tourism and what millions of gallons of ballast wastewater discharged from tankers might mean for local waters.

But wherever one stands on the project — excited about the jobs or fearful of what it may mean for global warming — everyone should agree that the proposal should be thoroughly examined and vetted to understand the potential impact and trade-offs involved. Unfortunately, that's not happening.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has so far opted only for an Environmental Assessment and not the more exhaustive Environmental Impact Statement. Virginia-based Dominion may tout the "exhaustive" review process on its website and in its advertising campaigns, but unless it includes the EIS, it is far from complete.

Would it slow down the application process? Almost certainly. Such a report will require Dominion to collect far more information about what the project will mean for the local ecology and for people living in the region. But that seems like a small price to pay. After all, Maryland has taken a skeptical approach to fracking generally, why wouldn't we insist on a closer examination of what an LNG plant will mean as well?

It's notable that Gov. Martin O'Malley has yet to take a position on the project (much to the disappointment of opponents). It is to him as the Keystone XL pipeline is to President Barack Obama — a project that divides his supporters in organized labor and the environmental movement. But considering how much Governor O'Malley has invested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions — from advocating new laws that have set higher standards on everything from car exhausts to coal-fired power plants — he, too, would surely benefit from a more complete analysis of Cove Point's effects.

Never mind that environmental groups are leading the charge for the full Environmental Impact Statement. Even if you don't give one fig about clean air or water, there's no reason not to approach such a enormous project with eyes fully open. FERC owes that much to the people of Maryland, and frankly, given the potential impact on global warming, the rest of the country, too.

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