Too close for comfort

May 01, 2007

U.S. Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski last week proposed giving state and local officials the right to veto the location of a liquefied natural gas terminal. The legislation is not likely to pass - but the point is well taken. In 2005, Congress unwisely gave the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the final say over where LNG facilities should be located, and some local communities may soon pay the price.

If tomorrow, for instance, a utility wanted to locate a nuclear power plant in Maryland, state and local officials would have far more authority. No reactor could ever be built without the OK of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but it also could not be constructed if the state declined to issue the needed permits and approvals.

In contrast, FERC has a kind of super power that leaves much of the final decision-making in the hands of the secretary of commerce. And if FERC's recent record proves anything, it's that the agency rarely finds an LNG project it doesn't like.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and many other local officials oppose Virginia-based AES Corp.'s proposal to construct an LNG terminal at Sparrows Point along with an 87-mile pipeline. Their reasons range from environmental problems to disruption of local shipping, but their chief argument boils down to this: The facility should not be built so close to a densely populated area.

And they're right. The Sparrows Point site includes only about 45 acres of land; that's not much of a buffer in the event of a catastrophe. Rural Calvert County's Cove Point LNG terminal was built on a 1,000-acre tract, and many of the LNG applications FERC is reviewing are for offshore sites - in some cases, many miles offshore.

U.S. natural gas consumption is growing, and importing more of the cleaner-burning alternative to coal or oil would help keep down prices - and carbon emissions. But LNG is yet another nonrenewable foreign import, not a long-term solution.

In the meantime, state and local officials will have to scramble to find ways to thwart the AES project. We encourage them to do so. Until someone can demonstrate why an LNG terminal has to be built in eastern Baltimore County rather than the dozens of other potential sites around the country, Maryland's views on the matter should be respected and the project should not go forward.

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