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 about 2,000 feet from the proposed drilling site.
Doug Weaver, a senior petroleum engineer for Texaco from New Orleans, said the well would be lined with cement and steel to minimize chances of contaminating any freshwater aquifers 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 spokesman for the Sierra Club. "But if there's oil there, you're going to have a very, very different county."
Ron Huber, a member of Earth First! from Owings, contended that Texaco has "a record of noncompliance." He said the company was fined $750,000 in 1988 for failing to test blowout-prevention equipment on a West Coast drilling rig.
Weaver acknowledged the incident, but said an employee, not the company, had been charged. The employee was fired, he said.
Some Charles County 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 said about 70 people turned out for a February public meeting that Texaco advertised in two local papers. There also were hearings and meetings arranged by county officials.
Texaco has applied for permits to drill three wells in Virginia, as it prospects for gas or oil in the bay region. The company came up with a "dry hole" just across the Potomac two years ago.
Gary Setzer, DNR's director of water and mineral management, said he will decide whether to issue Texaco a drilling permit 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.