Our Very Own Oil Patch on the Bay


January 20, 1992|By TIM BAKER

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has taken thefirst exciting step toward the development of a full-fledged petrochemical industry on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

Last month, the department granted Texaco a permit to drill an exploratory oil and gas well near Popes Creek a mile or so from where it flows into the Potomac in southern Maryland. A test rig has already hit natural gas across the river in Virginia. The oil company has leased 400,000 acres in the two states and plans to continue prospecting along a promising geological formation that runs through the Bay watershed from Richmond to Annapolis.

Sounds thrilling, doesn't it? Just imagine the view across the Bay. Oil rigs rim the shoreline. Sailboats dodge oil barges. At night the western sky blazes with those flaming runoff torches.

The Department of Natural Resources denies it has approved anything more than one little ''exploratory well.'' Texaco has promised to use the best environmental safeguards at the test site. But what if they strike oil? A gusher will inaugurate a whole new era in the Land of Pleasant Living. How does the state plan to deal with refineries, pipelines and tankers, leaks and spills? Does Maryland really want a petrochemical industry around the Chesapeake Bay?

Actually, the Department of Natural Resources says it hasn't thought about it at all. You see, Texaco must apply for a permit ''modification'' before it can begin producing any oil or gas. So there'll be plenty of time to think about theoretical problems later. Right?

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation disagrees. Last week, it demanded that the department rescind Texaco's permit. It criticizes the agency for considering the environmental impact of only the one test site while ignoring the damage full-scale commercial production would cause. It accuses the department of playing into the oil industry's hands. If Texaco discovers oil, a constituency of landowners, businessmen and developers will clamor for more drilling. By then it may be too late to stop the juggernaut.

This episode reminds us of two important lessons. First, environmental watchdogs must win every time, because when they lose, the consequences are often permanent. Second, we have already stressed and degraded the Chesapeake Bay beyond its capacity to absorb further punishment. After years of specific pollution controls, scientists can detect no discernible trend toward a system-wide comeback. So careful advance land-use planning is now essential in the Bay's watershed.

The primary environmental threats are no longer polluting industries, but land development. More than 15 million of us now live in the Bay region. Population growth will add another 3 million in the next 25 years. Where are we going to put them?

For the last 40 years we've put them in suburbs. But low-density suburban sprawl is strangling the Bay as inexorably as it is choking our lives. As we've spread out, we've chewed up forests and farm land and laid down miles and miles of concrete. The amount of developed residential land is increasing at twice the rate of population growth. New homes use four times as much land as they did in 1952. While population has risen 50 percent, energy use is up 100 percent and air pollution up 250 percent. The number of vehicle miles traveled is now growing four times as fast as the number of people.

Last year, the Bay Foundation's Tom Horton and William M. Eichbaum mapped out a plan for a ''sustainable existence'' in their magnificent book ''Turning the Tide.'' The Governor's Commission on Growth in the Chesapeake Bay Region (better known as the ''2020 Commission'') made a detailed series of land-use planning recommendations. Both reports suggested Maryland should direct future growth into compact areas of dense development around existing population centers and should protect and preserve large areas of farm and forest space.

In the General Assembly last year the 2020 Commission's proposals never had a chance against vehement opposition from county officials and local developers. Resistance remains so strong that the governor's latest proposal would merely ask the counties to recognize the connection between growth management and environmental protection.

The Bay watershed can no longer absorb the profligate attack on our land resources. But the state began to consider the consequences of sprawl only after too much of it had already occurred. Now we dilly-dally while development chews up land.

Maybe the Department of Natural Resources is leading us in the right direction after all. When the state's paved over and we spend half our time stalled in traffic jams, it won't matter if the Bay looks and smells like Kuwait.

Tim Baker writes on issues of city and state.

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