The Maryland Department of Natural Resources yesterday denied all appeals of its decision to let Texaco drill an exploratory well in Charles County, setting the stage for a court battle with environmentalists.
DNR officials released a letter refusing a request by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for a new public hearing on Texaco's drilling permit. The letter said that the Annapolis-based environmental group lacked legal standing in the issue and dismissed as speculation the group's fears that discovery of gas or oil might harm the bay.
DNR denied two other appeals on similar grounds, spokesman Rob Gould said. One was filed by a Calvert County resident who is a member of the EarthFirst! environmental group and the other by two Charles County residents.
Texaco received the go-ahead from DNR in December to sink a 10,000-foot test well in a farm field near Faulkner in Charles County, but the company has yet to begin.
The foundation contends DNR failed to consider the potential harm to the bay that could result from well blowouts or fires or, if Texaco begins production, from pipeline breaks or tanker spills. The group contends that the environmental assessment done by Texaco, which found no threat to the bay, was inadequate.
The 4.5-acre site is several miles from the bay, but just 500 yards from Popes Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River.
Gary T. Setzer, DNR's director of water and mineral management, said the state has imposed conditions to guard against any runoff of chemicals that might harm Popes Creek. He said that before Texaco could produce any gas or oil from the well, DNR would require another environmental assessment and a public hearing to review the risks.
A Texaco spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The company has said it hopes to find natural gas in Charles County but acknowledges there is a chance the well might yield oil.
Texaco now is drilling its third exploratory well across the Potomac River in Virginia, where two previous wells were dry.
Ann Powers, a vice president and lawyer for the bay foundation, said it was "highly likely" the group would go to court seeking to block Texaco from drilling.
DNR's refusal to hear appeals "flies in the face of a trend to see that citizens are involved in environmental issues," Ms. Powers said.
"What this essentially means is that only the people who are right there next to it [the proposed well] are going to be able to challenge it," said Ms. Powers. She noted that adjacent landowners may have signed leases with Texaco and stand to gain if the well strikes gas or oil.
BTC The bay foundation, which has 40,000 members in Maryland, said four of its 383 members who live in Charles County signed the group's letter appealing the permit.
The bay foundation and two other parties asked DNR last month for a contested public hearing on the Texaco drilling permit, in which both the oil company and opponents could present testimony and question each others' witnesses.
But Mr. Setzer ruled that only adjacent property owners and others with a direct interest may appeal. He ruled that the bay foundation's interest in the drilling is no different than that of the public.
DNR also cited the lack of standing in denying appeals by Ron Huber, a Chesapeake Beach resident who is a member of EarthFirst!, and Alexander Winter and Bonnie Bick, two Charles County residents.
Mr. Winter said he and Ms. Bick had not received word from the department. They live on Bryans Road, about 15 miles from the well site.
Mr. Winter said, "I live a lot closer than the people in the Department of Natural Resources live and a heckuva lot closer than the people from Texaco, who are going to make money from this."
Mr. Setzer declared that the concerns raised by the bay foundation could not be dealt with through a contested public hearing, because they focused mainly on what might happen if Texaco found gas or oil and sought to produce it.
He dismissed as "purely an opinion" fears stated by bay foundation officials that DNR would cave in to pressure to allow production if Texaco finds a major reserve.