The right of Texaco Inc. to look for gas or oil in Southern Maryland was upheld yesterday by a state Circuit Court judge, despite the objections of environmentalists who fear oil production could harm the Chesapeake Bay.
Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr. threw out a lawsuit that had been filed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and four of its members challenging Texaco's state permit to drill a 10,000-foot-deep exploratory well near Faulkner in Charles County.
The 4.5-acre site is several miles from the bay, but within 1,500 feet of Popes Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River.
The foundation contends the state 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 barge spills. The group also contends that the environmental assessment done by Texaco, which found no threat to the bay, was inadequate.
Judge Duckett declared environmentalists' fears about the drilling "irrelevant," because Texaco must apply again for state permission to produce any gas or oil it discovers, if it finds any.
In a five-page opinion, the judge ruled that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources was within its rights to deny the foundation and other opponents a special hearing on Texaco's application for a drilling permit.
Bay foundation officials said they may appeal the judge's ruling, which they said limits the right to demand agency hearings on drilling permits only to adjacent landowners.
"The citizens are basically being told, 'You don't count,' " said Ann Powers, the group's vice president and counsel.
The bay foundation filed suit in March seeking to block Texaco from drilling after the state refused requests for a special trial-like hearing on the permit it issued Texaco in December.
DNR spokesman Robert Gould said state officials were "very pleased" by the ruling upholding their handling of the permit.
"This is strictly an exploratory permit, and if Texaco does in fact produce any usable quantities of oil or natural gas, they would certainly have to go through a more rigorous [review] to do any kind of production," Mr. Gould said.
Despite the ruling, Texaco remains undecided on whether it will drill a well in Charles County, said spokeswoman Deborah Alford. The company last month capped its third unsuccessful test well across the Potomac in Virginia.
Texaco has spent $12 million in the past three years exploring an underground rock formation known as the Taylorsville basin, which stretches from central Virginia through Southern Maryland to the Eastern Shore.