Pipeline sparks growth fears

Residents, activists say project would boost population, harm life in bay

Bay pipeline proposal spurs growth fears

June 22, 2007|By Rona Kobell and Chris Guy | Rona Kobell and Chris Guy,Sun reporters

A proposal to build a natural gas pipeline under the Chesapeake Bay has sparked alarm among some Eastern Shore residents and environmentalists who fear that it will fuel population growth on a once-rural peninsula that is fast being developed.

Eastern Shore Natural Gas Co.'s proposed pipeline - which would be the first under the bay - is in the early planning stages and must clear many regulatory hurdles. But concern has heated up this week as residents learned more about the plans.

"It will spur development," said John Cole, Republican president of the Caroline County Commission, who has been fighting plans to put sewage lines under the Choptank River in Denton. "I don't favor anything that would disturb the serenity of the bay, and that definitely would."

Maryland planning officials predict that nearly 160,000 people will move to the Eastern Shore in the next 25 years. Maryland's part of the Shore now has about 425,000 residents - a population smaller than Baltimore's spread across 3,000 square miles.

Company officials acknowledge that the growth projections are a factor in their plans. They are asking to expand, they say, because their customers - the Shore's power companies - are asking for more gas.

"We're looking at the long-term growth on the Shore," said Richard Bernstein, who sits on the board of Chesapeake Utilities Corp., the corporate parent of Eastern Shore Natural Gas. "We can't drive growth; we have to react to it. We know the Shore best, and this is an expansion of our role."

The proposed pipeline would run from the Cove Point liquefied natural gas terminal in Southern Maryland to Cambridge and then to Bridgeville, Del.

Though it would be the first under the bay, many companies have underwater lines elsewhere. Dominion Resources Inc., which operates Cove Point, has gas pipelines under the Potomac and Patuxent rivers. Natural gas pipelines run under the Gulf of Mexico, Long Island Sound and Boston Harbor, said Mary O'Driscoll, spokeswoman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the energy industry.

"From what I've been told, [the pipelines] have a very safe operating history," O'Driscoll said.

Some environmentalists have expressed concerns that explosions or leaks in the proposed pipeline could harm aquatic life. But on the Shore - where the issue of development pervades nearly every public policy discussion - the biggest fear surrounding the pipeline proposal seems to be population growth.

"Largely, we are dealing with growth reactively - reacting to a gas company's plans, to a developer's plans - rather than stepping back and asking, `What is the appropriate growth for our community, for the Eastern Shore?'" said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the anti-sprawl group 1,000 Friends of Maryland. "Clearly, we do not want development to happen and there be no way to heat the homes. But we don't want gas capacity to encourage development."

Fears are not focused solely on possible change in the Shore's character. Residents - many of them longtime boaters and fishermen - know that more people means more paved surfaces, which means more runoff fouling the bay. It means more cars driving farther, and fewer forests and open spaces to help absorb the resulting air pollution, which feeds algae blooms that kill fish.

In the past, some public officials on the Shore aggressively courted development, contending that it would bolster the tax base. But in recent years, several counties have tried to put on the brakes.

Many have argued that growth-control efforts have been piecemeal and that the state is not doing enough to look at all of the issues - schools, roads and even natural gas needs - when planning for development.

Officials with the Maryland Department of Planning declined to comment on the pipeline. A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said the state Department of Natural Resources is reviewing the proposal and has not yet taken a position. And while the project would need at least one state permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment, the decision of whether the line can be built rests mostly with FERC.

Rob Etgen, executive director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, said the Shore doesn't have to live with the state's growth predictions. Most residents don't want such growth, according to his group's surveys. Etgen's group drafted a land-use agreement calling for aggressive growth controls, and four of the six counties he works in have signed it.

"I think the gas company's demand concerns are based on the projections from the Maryland Department of Planning, and it is our feeling that those projections are not our destiny," Etgen said.

The bottoms of the bay and its tributaries are crisscrossed with buried sewer, water, gas and communication lines - all of which require federal and state permits.

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