U.S. gas exports: disenfranchising Maryland to spite Russia? [Commentary]

Baltimore Sun | April 2, 2014 | Op-ed by Mike Tidwell

So, the United States can still respond quickly when democratic norms are trampled by a dictatorial power abroad. Good for Ukraine. Too bad Washington doesn't seem to care when the trampling occurs right here at home — at least not when the U.S. gas industry is involved.

Right now, as the drama unfolds in Crimea, millions of Marylanders are facing the possible imposition of new and disruptive gas pipelines and compressor stations across much of their state. The gas would come from controversial "hydraulic fracturing" — or fracking — wells spread across the Appalachian region. It would be piped through Maryland to a massive $3.8 billion "liquefaction" plant for natural gas at a place called Cove Point right on the Chesapeake Bay.

This entire infrastructure is the ugly underbelly of the much-discussed U.S. plan to export our "energy abundance" abroad as a counter to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other "energy bullies" worldwide. Less talked about is the absurdity of the strategy when almost all of this U.S. gas would be headed not to Europe but to Asia (where prices are higher), and how the exports themselves will painfully raise U.S. gas prices as much as 27 percent. Then there's the huge global warming damage this fracked gas causes, with new analyses showing it's probably as bad as coal.

But perhaps the biggest problem of all in the pell-mell rush to build six or more coastal export terminals in the U.S. is the harm it's bringing to our domestic traditions of public discourse, transparency and political accountability. From the start, the Cove Point proposal in Maryland has been steeped in secrecy, controversial "nondisclosure" agreements signed by politicians, and the withholding of key documents of vital safety concern to nearby residents. To this day, the all-Republican Calvert County Board of Commissioners (where Cove Point would be built) has not held a single public hearing dedicated to the full range of concerns on Cove Point.

Topping it all off is the fact that the federal government (with the thunderous approval of the gas industry) is refusing even to conduct a customary Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Cove Point. This facility, if built, would become a major new source of smog and would directly incentivize a massive new wave of fracking drilling across the mid Atlantic, including possibly in the Washington D.C. suburbs. And yet the federal government doesn't want to do an EIS?

Similar shortcuts are being pushed at other proposed LNG export facilities in Louisiana, Texas and Oregon. This, apparently, is what the "fast-tracking" of gas exports looks like. At Cove Point, nearby residents have recently been told to prepare for a six-story tall "vapor cloud containment wall" around part of the plant. It's a first-of-its-kind and untested barrier made necessary in the haste of cramming this export facility right between existing neighborhoods and Little League baseball fields. No other LNG export facility in the world has been proposed so close to so many people. And none has been proposed so close to nuclear reactors. Cove Point would be less than three miles from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. (Why worry about "loose nukes" in Russia when we're creating a possible LNG-to-nuclear mishap right here at home, a stone's throw from the Capitol dome?)

Why the shortcuts? Dominion Resources — the energy giant proposing to build Cove Point in Maryland — has openly told journalists and officials of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that an EIS would simply take too long (six to 12 months) and possibly jeopardize already-signed contracts to ship the Appalachian gas to India and Japan.

In other words, a more thorough environmental review — one that customarily involves extensive public hearings and federal responses to public comments — would not maximize Dominion's shareholder profits. Dominion and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (the overseer of Dominion's Cove Point proposal) flat out refuse to conduct an EIS. They will do a much more limited study instead. This is simply shocking — and shameful. Unless the White House reverses gears and begins calling for an EIS for Cove Point and every other proposed export plant denied this process, there will be no multi-month environmental review sufficient to meet the standards intended by the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act.

That raises the question: If we can't have public accountability at Cove Point and elsewhere, in what way are our systems superior to the political steam rolling of innocent people abroad? The Obama administration should begin today calling for an EIS for Cove Point. Let's take care of energy democracy here at home before we rush off to "help" friends abroad.

Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. His email is [email protected].

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.