State officials have decided to let petroleum giant Texaco Inc. drill an exploratory well in Southern Maryland, but environmentalists vow to fight it as a potential threat to Chesapeake Bay.
At a news conference in Annapolis today, Department of Natural Resources officials announced approval of a permit to Texaco.
The permit allows Texaco to drill 10,000 feet deep in a farm field near Faulkner in Charles County, where oil company officials say they expect to find natural gas rather than oil -- if they find anything at all.
The company is drilling a similar exploratory well across the Potomac River in Westmoreland County, Va., according to DNR officials. A well drilled nearby in Virginia two years ago turned up traces of gas, but not enough to be marketable.
Anticipating criticism from environmentalists, DNR Secretary Torrey C. Brown has issued a statement saying his agency is responsible for developing and enhancing the state's natural resources as well as protecting the environment.
"That's exactly what we're doing by approving the exploratory permit," Brown says.
DNR officials say precautions will be taken to prevent any pollution from from getting into Popes Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River about 2,000 feet from the 4.5-acre drilling site.
But William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, criticizes Brown and Gov. William Donald Schaefer for not banning any drilling near the bay. He says the Annapolis environmental group would challenge the permit.
"We just don't understand why there isn't any leadership on this," Baker says. "We've spent too much of the taxpayers' money cleaning up the bay. "
Opponents of the well have 30 days to appeal DNR's decision and ask for an adjudicatory hearing, a trial-like proceeding in which parties on both sides present evidence and question each other.
The drilling, which is not expected to begin until early next year, should take about 18 weeks.
An earthen levee is to be built around the well to collect any fluids from it along with any rain or snow that falls on the site, and the liquids are to be shipped to a licensed disposal facility. Only fresh water and non-toxic materials will be used in the drilling operation, Texaco says.
DNR officials stress that they are granting Texaco permission only to explore for gas or oil.
"We have done everything we can to make sure this thing is proper," says DNR spokesman Rob Gould. "If by chance Texaco finds any natural gas or oil, they're going to have to go through a very lengthy and rigorous process before they can begin producing anything."
The company would have to apply for a modification of its permit to pump any gas or oil from the well, Gould says. That would require a public hearing and a new study of the potential environmental impact of producing gas or oil at the site and disposing of any wastes generated.
But Baker contends that the requirements for modifying an already-issued permit are less stringent than those needed to obtain a brand new one. He says Texaco should be required to apply all over again if it wants to produce gas or oil from its exploratory well.
"We're very concerned that both Maryland and Virginia are taking a fairly complacent attitude toward this," Baker says. "I think it's irresponsible to look at this proposed well in isolation, as opposed to the first step of a whole new industry on the bay, and an industry that has proved itself to be one of the most polluting."
Environmentalists have said that while gas poses fewer pollution hazards than does oil, there is still an outside chance of finding oil, which poses potential risks of well blowouts and barge spills.
Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th, and five other Maryland and Virginia congressmen have sided with environmentalists, calling on Texaco to back off its drilling plans.
DNR officials insist the well poses no risks to the bay, where state law already forbids drilling on the water itself.
"People still think this thing's in the bay," says the DNR's Gould. "It's not. It's off the bay. It's on dry land."