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Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and its businesses, need the natural gas pipeline | COMMENTARY

In the last few weeks, Maryland has witnessed several exciting economic development announcements. Novavax, a business in Montgomery County’s Biotech Corridor, announced that it was adding 400 jobs as it plans to expand its operation to roll out its COVID-19 related treatments. In Baltimore County, Governor Larry Hogan just recently participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for McCormick & Co.’s 1.8 million square foot state-of-the-art Northeast Distribution Center in Sparrows Point.

It occurred to me that on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, similar announcements are fewer and further between. Despite low labor and property acquisition costs, an uncontested north-south transportation corridor with highways like US-301, Route 50 and Route 13, expanding companies ignore the Eastern Shore because of a lack of ready and reliable natural gas.

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Of the Eastern Shore’s nine counties, only a few have reliable utility-scale natural gas service. Somerset County does not, nor do the counties in the district I represent on the Upper Shore.

Montgomery County’s Biotech Corridor depends on natural gas to bring cutting edge pharmaceutical and genetic engineering products to market. McCormick & Co. relies on natural gas to power its operations as the world’s leading spice manufacturer. Neither McCormick nor Novavax are opening nor expanding on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Why would they when portions of the Eastern Shore lack the critical clean cost-effective energy infrastructure that they require?

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I routinely hear from Eastern Shore economic development officers, like Somerset County’s Danny Thompson, bemoaning the absence of natural gas. They often call it the number one barrier to recruiting companies to the region. This, on top of the lack of a sufficient broadband infrastructure, defines our Eastern Shore counties; we are perceived to be stuck in the 19th century. They tell us to focus on farming, yet our agricultural economy is subject to the volatile commodity prices of corn and soybeans, and our poultry farmers are vulnerable to the persistent attacks by many of the same Western Shore environmental advocates who oppose natural gas pipelines. The result is that the Eastern Shore trails the Western Shore counties in just about every economic aspect.

Somerset County, by all measures, is the most impoverished county in the state. According to the Federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, Somerset’s 2018 per capita income was $31,562 — ranking dead last among Maryland counties and about a third of Montgomery County’s leading $89,690. The arrival of natural gas there should be a cause for celebration.

But Debbie-downers from the Western Shore, who probably couldn’t even point to Somerset County on a map, are unhappy. They say that this is an environmental justice issue, as the proposed Del-Mar Energy Pathway pipeline will go through low-income census tracts.

It’s a bit rich to have residents of counties whose economies are thriving because of their access to modern infrastructure condemn a region for wanting the same infrastructure to enable economic development. The only way to lift those census tracts out of poverty is to bring economic opportunity, that will come through infrastructure projects like this.

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The University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Eastern Correctional Institute will be the main off-takers of this planned connection, moving both institutions to cleaner forms of energy and thus reducing their emissions and associated release of particulate matter.

UMES will retire its heating oil and propane system to rely on a fuel source that is used at most other University of Maryland System schools. (Even the University of Maryland College Park, the state’s flagship campus, is currently reviewing responses from potential vendors to operate their entire on-campus utilities on a system largely reliant on natural gas.) And Eastern Correctional will abandon an obsolete woodchip fired combined heat and power program and transition to a modern natural gas fired system for its thermal and electric loads.

Few may remember, but in 2014, the Maryland General Assembly, against the wishes of all three Eastern Shore senators, passed legislation effectively killing the Great Wind Renewable Energy project in Somerset County. So, which is it?

Somerset County is struggling, and the messages from leaders in Annapolis have been inconsistent. I’m urging Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp to vote this Wednesday to allow the Eastern Shore Natural Gas Project to move forward. With the appropriate infrastructure, our Eastern Shore counties can compete with the Montgomery and Baltimore counties to attract the next Novavax expansion and McCormick distribution center. Please give us a chance.

Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (steve.hershey@senate.state.md.us) is a Republican representing Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties in the Maryland state Senate.

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