Gas pipeline vote scheduled

FERC to take up proposal despite request for delay, concerns from wildlife group

January 13, 2009|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said yesterday that it plans to vote this week on a proposal to build a natural gas terminal in Sparrows Point and an 88-mile pipeline to Pennsylvania, despite a request to delay action until concerns about an endangered bat and a threatened turtle can be addressed.

"The case is still scheduled for consideration Thursday," said Tamara Young Allen, a commission spokeswoman. "The commission could address the issues brought by the wildlife service and could approve [the project] but require other mitigating measures from the applicant."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the project, if undertaken by Virginia-based AES Corp., could adversely affect habitats along the proposed pipeline route used by the bog turtle, which is on the federal threatened-species list, and the Indiana bat, which is on the federal endangered-species list.

In a letter to the FERC last week, Willie Taylor, director of the office of environmental policy for the wildlife service, a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior, asked the commission to "withhold certification" of the project until the habitat issues are resolved.

Even if the commission approves it, however, the project still has to satisfy a number of state and federal requirements before construction can begin.

"The applicant has a lot of homework left to do," said Jennifer Kagel, a biologist with the service's Pennsylvania field office. "They must provide us with the biological information and complete their environmental surveys."

Carole Copeyon, an endangered-species specialist in the same field office, said at least two bog turtle habitats have been identified along the proposed pipeline route. She expects that others will be found this spring, when the service undertakes its survey of the watershed area.

"The bog turtle is fairly important to the food chain in the wetlands system and is already in decline," Copeyon said. "It would be very unlikely that it would derail this project, but turtles don't have the option to move, and their natural escape mechanisms don't work too well against heavy excavating equipment."

Surveys for the Indiana bat, scheduled for this summer, are also expected to find several sites for the species, which is rarely seen in Maryland, she said.

AES contractors would have to shift the alignment of the pipeline or bore underneath the wetlands, instead of trenching, to avoid disruption in the wetlands, Copeyon said.

A spokesman for AES said yesterday that the company would have no comment.

The terminal would receive tankers carrying imported, super-chilled, liquefied natural gas, which would be restored to its gaseous state and then pumped through a pipeline to southern Pennsylvania for distribution.

"The developer has assured us that it will comply with all safety and environmental concerns, and I have every confidence that will happen," said Rod Easter, president of the Maryland State and Washington D.C. Building Trades Council. "This project will create jobs and economic growth. Energy projects like this will put people back to work and will reduce energy costs in Maryland."

Given the economic advantages of the terminal and pipeline, which would initially generate 400 jobs, Easter said he expects it will win approval Thursday.

Local, state and federal officials, as well as community leaders, have protested against the project, expressing concerns about security surrounding LNG transport. They also have questioned the proximity of the proposed facility and pipeline to homes and noted the potential for accidents or terrorist attacks.

"The company will have to meet numerous mitigating measures with local governments to make this project safer," said David Carroll, Baltimore County director of sustainability. "But we don't know what mitigating measures are planned, because we are not cooperating with FERC or the applicant. We will not do anything to move this project forward."

But he said Taylor's letter is encouraging.

"We had hoped this determination would have FERC table the project, but we know the agency is trying to get everything approved before the administration changes," Carroll said. "This is not by any stretch a done deal, but FERC has basically not seen an LNG facility it didn't like. We believe the facility will be given approval but with a long list of conditions before construction can begin."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said, "For more than two years, I have repeatedly raised my safety, security and environmental concerns about this LNG facility and pipeline. ... The Department of Interior's recent correspondence with FERC shows why the commission should not make a final decision on this project this week."

HABITAT IN DANGER

Bog turtle: One of the smallest turtles in the world, an adult's shell measures just over 4 inches. Plans to build a highway bypass around Hampstead in Carroll County were stymied for six years until engineers redrew the proposed route to skirt turtle habitat. Maryland is home to about 1,500 to 2,500 of the world's estimated 14,000 to 19,000 adult bog turtles. Added to the federal threatened-species list in 1997.

Indiana bat: Found only in the Eastern U.S., mostly in Kentucky, Indiana and Missouri. They have a body length of less than 4 inches and a wingspan of 9 to 11 inches. Fewer than 400,000 remain in the U.S. Added to the federal endangered-species list in 1967.

Sources: Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Baltimore Sun archives

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