Earlier this year, when Dominion Energy began making it known its plans to add a gas export facility to its already large liquefied natural gas import facility at Cove Point in Calvert County, environmentalists were in a wait-and-see mode.

They wanted to know how it would expand, where the gas would go, and what harm the overall operation might do to the environment — traffic on the roads, ships in the channels, emissions in the air. They also wondered how it would impact the rest of the state; whether it would provide an incentive to develop hydraulic fracturing in Western Maryland and to develop pipeline infrastructure in the rest of the state. And they wanted to see how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and local authorities would handle the potential expansion.

Now, some of those questions have been answered. Calvert County voted to waive all zoning requirements for the new plant, and FERC approved the permit to export. But environmental groups are no closer to having their questions answered about what this plant might do to the environment, and they are no longer going to be quiet about their concerns.

A group of activists kicked off the Maryland Crossroads Tour in Baltimore's Federal Hill Park Tuesday, a nine-day caravan of clean-energy vehicles that is traveling from the Appalachians to the Eastern Shore to share their fears about Cove Point. Wearing shirts that said “Clean Energy, Not Cove Point,” the coalition included students, faith-based communities, environmental health, clean energy and clean water advocates.

“We would hear the great sucking sound of Appalachian gas flowing to Asia if this is built,” said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Tidwell noted that the company wants to export 770,000 cubit feet of gas a day — four times what Marylanders use — to Japan, revaporize it, and take it another 7,000 miles before burning it.

“This will trigger more global warming pollution than anything else in the state,” Tidwell said.

On its web site, Dominion talks about the “thousands of jobs’ and “millions of tax revenue” that the facility will bring, although the county wants to approve tax credits for the site that will diminish the amount of taxes it will collect.

Calvert County justifies the break by noting that the plant, which currently employs 100 people, will employ 70 more with the expansion, plus create 3,000 construction jobs.

Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman said he’s tired of the company and the county touting job numbers at the expense of everything else — namely, real information about how large this plant will be and its potential harmful effects on everything from water quality to traffic. it could spark a drilling boom in Maryland; already, there is talk of a pipeline going through Baltimore City that could connect to Cove Point.

“This is the extent of the dialogue we get to have: We ask about impacts, they say, ‘jobs.’ It’s like a feedback loop,” he said. “I resent it, as an American citizen, as a taxpayer, to be portrayed as against our energy future simply by asking good questions.”

Based on what he does know, Tutman said, he calls the plan an “ecological time bomb.”

Tutman, Tidwell and other environmentalists want FERC to require Dominion to do a full Environmental Impact Statement instead of just the shorter Environmental Assessment. The impact statement looks more broadly at cumulative affects, but it can take as long as 18 months. With the price of natural gas low, Dominion would like to begin exporting as soon as possible.

It is a race against time, as the domestic price will rise again soon. More than a dozen LNG plants are already proposed. Two others have permits for export approval; they’re both in the Gulf of Mexico. Cove Point would be the first such facility on the East Coast.

A recent story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, home of Dominion, cheered the Cove Point development as a “remarkable deal” that “gets even better” for the company because its international customers will pay the company whether it moves the gas or not.

Tidwell and Tutman are far less assured of the win-win aspects. They caution Dominion’s claims that the export facility is just an expansion are misleading. It will be spending $3.8 billion to create new infrastructure at Cove Point, because export operations are vastly more involved than import ones.

“We really had no opinion at first. Now we’re at the point where we think this is really dangerous,” Tutman said. “The practical downsides haven’t been explored. It lacks any semblance of an open process.”