Over objections from environmentalists, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given the green light to building a hotly disputed natural gas pipeline through western Maryland and under the Potomac River.Environmental groups and western Maryland residents have protested a pipeline that would cross western Maryland and travel below the Potomac River. (Chesapeake Climate Action Network)

With one of its five commissioners voting no and another dissenting in part, the five-member commission in July approved the Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project, a 3.5-mile pipeline proposed by Columbia Gas Transmission that would carry gas from Pennsylvania to West Virginia.

Environmental groups and some western Maryland residents have waged a lengthy campaign against the “Potomac Pipeline,” as they call it, staging repeated protest demonstrations and garnering resolutions against the project from several local governments. Opponents argue that the project’s construction risks harm to the river and drinking water supplies, both near the drilling and downriver. They also contend that it will accelerate climate change by encouraging more natural gas production and consumption.

In its 53-page order, the commission majority brushed aside those concerns, saying the company’s plan for drilling beneath the Potomac addressed the risks and potential impacts of a leak or blowout.

Environmentalists had asked the commission to require Columbia Gas, a subsidiary of TransCanada, to follow a lengthy list of conditions for drilling beneath the river that the Maryland Department of the Environment had proposed in approving a state permit for the project. But the federal panel declined to do so, saying it would instead encourage the company to adhere to the state conditions.

The panel’s majority also dismissed contentions that the pipeline would stimulate more gas production using hydraulic fracturing, a controversial technique blamed for instances of drinking water well contamination and other problems. They likewise said they lacked information to determine whether the pipeline could significantly exacerbate climate change by allowing for more gas to be produced and consumed, as environmentalists contended.

But two of the five panel members took issue with the majority on those last two points. Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur concurred with the majority in approving the pipeline, but she disagreed with its decision to ignore the project’s climate-change impacts. Commissioner Richard Glick opposed the project, arguing that the commission had abrogated its legal responsibility by refusing to consider those impacts.

“Climate change poses an existential threat to our security, economy, environment and, ultimately, the health of individual citizens,” Glick wrote. He said the majority “goes out of its way to avoid seriously addressing the project’s impact from climate change” by disregarding the potential emissions of carbon dioxide and methane that might result from increased gas production and consumption.

In August, two environmental groups — the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network — filed a request with FERC seeking a re-hearing, arguing that the commission did not adequately consider the direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions from the project. The groups also have criticized Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan for his administration's decision not to subject the pipeline to more rigorous environmental review. 

This article was updated on August 20, 2018.