The Sierra Club’s Big Stick
The biggest news in Chesapeake Country is hidden in plain sight at a bump on Calvert County’s long, otherwise smooth Bay shoreline.
Travel by water in the vicinity of 38 degrees 23 minutes north latitude and 76 degrees 23 minutes west longitude and, right off of Cove Point, you’ll see the tip of the iceberg. A mile and a quarter from shore is an enormous loading platform, mostly waiting nowadays for any 800-plus-foot tanker’s load of 30 million gallons of liquefied natural gas.
The gas docks, and much of their on-land infrastructure, have been a landmark on the Bay since the oil crisis of the 1970s suggested natural gas would boom. But demand for imported gas has seldom lived up to expectations. For a couple of decades, the only boats arriving at the gas docks were after the fish teeming about the docks’ underwater structure.
In 2002, the Virginia-based energy giant Dominion Resources won approval to reopen the site and over the next few years expanded its capacity with new storage tanks and a second Calvert stretch of the 87-mile pipeline that delivered the gas to northern Virginia for nationwide distribution.
All that is history — or would have been had not the bottom once again fallen out of the LNG import business.
It was history waiting to be forgotten until Dominion Resources decided the time — and the Marcellus Shale — was right for adding a gas export line to Cove Point’s business.
Not So Fast
No go, said The Sierra Club last week, with an authority that might have made you wonder who those environmentalists thought they were.
“We will not grant Dominion’s request again to expand the facility in order to export LNG,” national and Maryland Club leaders wrote in a letter dated April 26.
As partner in a 40-year-old treaty that let the gas docks rise, The Sierra Club seems, at least for now, able to do just what it says.
Back in 1964, Calvert Cliffs State Park was conceived to preserve the archaeology and geology of the storied cliffs. It would also create public access to the Chesapeake Bay with a beach, campground, picnic areas and boat ramp. The new park would cover 1,800 acres, including a unique 200-acre freshwater marsh.
In 1967, a federal appropriation of $250,000 enabled Maryland to buy private land for the new park. By 1970, Maryland owned 1,000 acres, with plans to acquire the remaining 800.
But in May 1970, Columbia Gas Systems — one of the country’s largest energy supply companies — set its sights on the same 800 acres. Instead of a park, Columbia planned a port of entry for imported liquified natural gas from Algeria.
In a private meeting between then Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew and the companies, the plan to acquire those 800 acres for the park was scuttled in favor of the more financially — and likely politically — lucrative LNG facility.
Enter The Sierra Club. Empowered by major court victories in the western United States — blocking a dam that would have flooded the Grand Canyon — Sierra used the newly enacted National Environmental Policy Act to block the construction. At issue was the proper use of a prime natural area already designated by the state as a park.
The Sierra Club and Maryland Conservation Council were ready to take Columbia to court. But in an unlikely twist of events, the environmentalists and the corporation reached an out-of-court settlement.
To get its facility, Columbia had to agree to protect the beaches, fresh-water marsh and the appearance of the shoreline. The facility’s design was modified to include a mile-long tunnel under the Bay to an offshore pier, the gas docks. Columbia also agreed that should it cease to import LNG at Cove Point, the land would be donated to the state and become part of Calvert Cliffs State Park.
The agreement also bound Columbia — and any future owners of the terminal — to conditional land use and required the approval of the environmental groups for any expansions.
Dominion Cove Point, the current owner of the docks, has honored the treaty, both on expansion and in actively protecting the fragile Bay environment, from partnering in the Cove Point Natural Heritage Trust and Living Shoreline Project to building a LEED certified headquarters.
“We take our role as stewards of the environment seriously,” says spokesman Karl Neddenien.
That condition came back to haunt Dominion in 2005 when it sought to add new storage facility tanks. On the strength of the 1972 agreement, the Sierra Club struck another out-of-court agreement. Cove Point would have its new tanks, but they would be kept to a size that would not adversely affect “visual impact” from land or water.
That deal, according to The Sierra Club, also restricts Cove Point to LNG imports and bars major new construction on the site without consent of the two environmental groups.
“The deal says what it says, and that’s the end of the story,” said Sierra Club lawyer Craig Segall.
Both sides are holding their ground. The Sierra Club is a dedicated national opponent of natural gas exports and the controversial extracting method known as fracking.
“The damage that this project would bring to the Maryland coast as well as the disastrous effects of the fracking boom on communities in states like Pennsylvania make it clear that exporting liquefied natural gas is bad news for Americans’ air, water and health,” the Club’s executive director, Maryland chair and Natural Gas Reform Campaign director wrote in the April 26 letter to Dominion.
Dominion, in turn, disputes the claim that the agreement bars gas export.
“We are confident we can locate, construct and operate a liquefaction plant at Cove Point … within the footprint of the existing facility without amending the agreement involving The Sierra Club and Maryland Conservation Council,” wrote Thomas F. Farrell II, Dominion chairman, president and CEO.
What’s next? Only time will tell. This story is in the making.