LA PLATA -- Texaco Inc.'s plan to drill for natural gas or oil in Southern Maryland is drawing fire from environmentalists, who question the company's assurances that its well poses no threat to Chesapeake Bay or the environment.
About 45 people, most of them armed with complaints and skepticism, came to the Bel Alton fire house last night for a public hearing on Texaco's request for a state permit to sink a 10,000-foot-deep exploratory well near Faulkner in Charles County.
Company officials outlined the safeguards they planned to prevent any oil or other pollutants from spilling into Popes Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River that is about 2,000 feet from the proposed drilling site.
Doug Weaver, a senior petroleum geologist for Texaco from New Orleans, said the well would be lined with cement and steel to minimize chances of contaminating any freshwater aquifiers that might lie under the four-acre site in a farm field.
Only non-hazardous drilling muds will be used, and fluids from the well and any rain or snow that falls on the site will be collected and shipped to a licensed waste disposal facility, Weaver said.
But environmentalists and some residents remained dubious, and they noted that Texaco was not ruling out the possibility that it might find oil instead of gas.
Company officials say either one is a long shot, but gas is more likely.
Richard Mays, an attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the company's environmental assessment of the well fails to consider the impact on the county and the bay if Texaco discovers marketable quantities of gas or oil.
A successful well will prompt Texaco to want to drill more wells, Mays predicted, which could lead to fuel and waste storage, transportation and treatment problems.
Jane Nishida, Maryland director for the foundation, urged the state to reject Texaco's permit, contending that the environmental risks are potentially great and irreversible, while the project will offer little economic benefit for the county.
Texaco says it has leased about 40,000 acres in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.
"If all they did was drill this well, it sounds pretty harmless," said Jon Robinson, a Sierra Club spokesman.
"But if there's oil there, you're going to have a very, very different county." He questioned the oil industry's credibility, citing the recent controversy over Alyeski Pipeline Co. hiring private investigators to check out its chief critic.
Some residents complained they had not heard about this proposed well until recently, and they were upset that the project has obtained all local, state and federal approvals except the drilling permit, which is issued by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Texaco spokeswoman Deborah Alford said she was surprised by those complaints.
She noted that about 70 people turned out in February for a public meeting that Texaco advertised in two local papers. There also were hearings and meetings before the Charles County Planning Commission.
Texaco also has applied for permits to drill three wells in Virginia. The company came up with a "dry hole" just across the Potomac two years ago.
Gary Setzer, a DNR official reviewing Texaco's application, said that a decision whether to issue the permit will be made by Dec. 19. Written comments on the project will be accepted until Nov. 19. Parties may appeal his decision and ask for a contested hearing.