For the past year, Maryland has been a global gateway for American natural gas extracted from the ground through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — despite the state’s ban on the controversial process within its own borders.
Fracked gas from Pennsylvania and other states is being piped to an export terminal at Cove Point on the Chesapeake Bay in Southern Maryland, then shipped around the world.
The trade puts Maryland at the vanguard of a growing global trade in liquefied natural gas.
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector spent months reporting in and around Cove Point, in the fracking fields of Pennsylvania and in Japan, the largest consumer of Cove Point gas, to better understand the Maryland facility’s role in the global trade.
Here are the basics:
What is natural gas?
Natural gas is used in cooking, heating and electricity production. It also is used in industrial production of plastics and other chemical products. It generally burns cleaner than coal and other fossil fuels, but critics say the industry that produces it is far from environmentally friendly.
What’s happening in Maryland?
For a year now, natural gas pulled from ancient shale formations deep below the surface of Pennsylvania and other states has been piped across Maryland to a new $4.4 billion gas export terminal in the woods beyond Cove Point Beach in Calvert County.
There, the gas is cooled to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, which liquefies it and makes it easier to transport. It is then piped through a tunnel to a platform a mile offshore and loaded onto massive tankers for shipment overseas.
What is Cove Point?
Cove Point is an outcropping into the Chesapeake Bay about 65 miles south of Baltimore.
Far from the bustle of Baltimore and Washington but near enough for weekend getaways, the spit of beach drew residents from both cities, who built bungalows as vacation homes in the 1930s through the 1960s. Today it’s also home to a terminal where natural gas is liquefied and processed by Dominion Energy, a Virginia-based utility.
Where is the gas coming from?
Much comes from the Marcellus Shale, an ancient rock formation that runs thousands of feet below ground from New York to Ohio to West Virginia.
In the rolling hills of Susquehanna County in Northeast Pennsylvania, a Houston-based drilling company is working to fulfill a contract with one of Dominion’s biggest customers.
Crossroads like Montrose, population 1,500, are now essentially gas towns, their local economies thriving thanks to the many men and women who work the drilling rigs and drive the trucks that service them around the clock.
Some residents say the industry has been a boon to the economy. Others say it has brought only problems — including contaminated water wells.
Where is the gas going?
Dominion officials have struck two 20-year deals with foreign buyers for the LNG processed at Cove Point.
From March to December of last year, nearly half the cargoes that left Cove Point were bound for Japan. The gas goes in part to utilities Tokyo Gas and Kansai Electric Power Co.
The other cargoes, sold to an Indian utility, wound up going all over the world — to India but also to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, France, Jordan, Kuwait, Mexico, Pakistan, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
What are the benefits?
The Cove Point terminal handles about 770 million cubic feet of natural gas per day, enough to power millions of overseas homes. The Calvert County government will get more than $50 million in revenue from Dominion this year — a massive influx for a jurisdiction with a general fund of less than $300 million.
Officials in countries where the gas is being consumed say it has provided them with a reliable source of energy that is cleaner than other fossil fuels.
State officials and other supporters of the industry also contend natural gas is an important bridge fuel between dirtier coal and cleaner renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
What are the costs?
Critics say the terminal is a giant, glaring contradiction — making Maryland the only state that has both a ban on fracking and an export terminal for sending fracked gas to international markets.
They note that fracking — which blasts water, sand and chemicals into rock formations to release trapped gas — is associated with groundwater contamination, increased risk of earthquakes and emissions of potent greenhouse gases.
According to state data, the terminal was responsible for more than 1 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. That makes it one of the largest stationary sources of such emissions in the state, but also puts it well within the limit it is allowed to release.