Western Maryland wrestles with energy future

Wind, coal, Marcellus shale projects stir debate

  • Constellation Energy's turbines atop Backbone Mountain south of Oakland are being readied for power generation. Some of the blades are spinning during testing.
Constellation Energy's turbines atop Backbone Mountain… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
December 13, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

While Maryland's energy future might lie in harnessing the breezes off Ocean City, the frontier for now is in the same place it's always been — in the mountains of Western Maryland — where the region's winds and coal and natural gas reserves are drawing prospectors.

That's unsettling to some environmentalists and Western Marylanders, who fear the impact of new and traditional energy development on the region's rich natural resources, its outdoors-oriented tourist industry and its rural quality of life.

Maryland's first two industrial-scale wind "plants" are on the verge of generating power atop the state's highest mountain in Garrett County. Though their construction stirred concerns over harming rare bats and disturbing forested vistas, a new string of them is being planned for another ridgetop.

Near Grantsville, miners pursuing the region's long-exploited coal reserves are set to begin tunneling under the Casselman River, sole home to two of the state's rarest animals, to extract ore from the other side.

And in the far northwestern corner of the state, an Oklahoma-based company is inching closer to getting the first permit to drill in Maryland for natural gas locked in Marcellus shale deposits deep underground. To get at the gas, the company plans to use a hydraulic fracturing technique that has been blamed in other states for tainting residential wells and polluting streams.

The prospects that there might be a vast, untapped wealth of clean-burning natural gas beneath Garrett and western Allegany counties has spurred energy companies and speculators to lease or buy the rights to drill throughout the region. In Garrett alone, county officials estimate drilling rights have been lined up on 124,000 acres — more than a quarter of the county's land mass — including on or next to publicly owned land in Savage River State Forest.

Western Maryland's role as the state's energy frontier doesn't bother state Sen. George C. Edwards, a Republican who represents Garrett and Allegany counties. He says the income and jobs from each energy project are badly needed in communities where unemployment is higher than average.

"We're the only place in the state that has energy, except for wind," Edwards said. "This country should be energy-independent. We ought to be part of making us energy-independent."

But others are worried about the environmental impacts of one or more of the energy industries at work in the region, and some are pressing for moratoriums.

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, says "it's clear that coal and shale gas are real threats to the physical integrity of Western Maryland.

"The question is, what's the price of energy on the beautiful natural heritage of Western Maryland?" he asks.

Wind

Constellation Energy is testing the last of the 28 wind turbines it has built this year on Backbone Mountain south of Oakland. A spokesman says the Baltimore-based company expects to begin producing power from the $140 million project in the next week or two.

Synergics Wind Energy, which started erecting 20 turbines on the same mountain after Constellation, has already begun producing electricity from some even as it finishes work on the others, according to company spokesman Frank Maisano.

Meanwhile, Maisano confirmed that the Annapolis-based company is planning what could be the state's third land-based wind project atop Four-Mile Ridge southwest of Frostburg, where it would build 24 turbines with up to 60 megawatts-generating capacity.

But opponents are urging the county's newly elected commissioners to impose a moratorium on new turbines until a thorough review is conducted of their efficacy, safety and environmental impacts.

"Time is of the utmost importance before our mountain culture is forever destroyed," John Bambacus, a former Republican state senator and ex-mayor of Frostburg, wrote to one commissioner-elect.

None of the three new commissioners, who take office this week, responded to e-mails seeking his position on the moratorium request.

Coal

Tidwell is particularly concerned about what he says has been a "dramatic increase" in surface coal mining in Western Maryland, which he considers harmful to the region's streams and forests. Mines can be seen from Interstate 68, and from the town of Frostburg, he points out.

While Maryland's overall coal production has fallen in the past decade, the number of surface mines in the state has grown from 12 in 2001 to 20 last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. John Carey, chief of the Maryland Bureau of Mines, a division of the state Department of the Environment, estimates that there are actually more than 30 active surface mines and two underground mines, but he says there's not been a noticeable increase in mining activity in recent years. Production declined last year during the recession.

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