This is a guest post by Katie Huffling, Mike Tidwell, and Joelle Novey
Fifty years ago the US Surgeon General’s report on cigarettes and lung cancer changed America forever. Before the report, Americans generally thought smoking was okay – maybe even good for us given ads like, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” But then the hard evidence – the undeniable facts – came to the surface and we changed.
That’s the good news. The bad news for Maryland is that we have a new “Camel cigarette” problem. For the past several months, a powerful corporation called Dominion Resources has been telling Marylanders that we can light something else on fire – something called “fracked gas” – and that it will be good for public health and the environment.
Dominion wants to build a massive industrial plant at a place called Cove Point in southern Maryland to systematically collect, process, liquefy, and export to faraway Asia a huge quantity of gas taken from hydraulic fracturing drilling sites all across our region. To understand the full-blown public health emergency that could result from this, you need to remember this number: 19. That’s how many Maryland counties – 19 out of a total of 23 – that have recently been mapped and found to have gas basins below their surface. Every one of those 19 counties could get fracked – with all the attendant problems ranging from flammable tap water to deforestation – thanks directly or indirectly to Dominion’s Cove Point plan.
We are Maryland leaders working with health organizations, religious communities, and environment groups, and we are simply appalled by Dominion’s Cove Point gas “liquefaction” and export proposal now before the Maryland Public Service Commission. Indeed on February 20th, outside the PSC’s downtown Baltimore office, we joined demonstrators from across the state in one of the largest environmental protests in the city’s history. Our message to the PSC: “Don’t let Dominion addict Maryland to harmful energy. Stop the Cove Point gas export plant.”
Here are the facts. Wherever fracking occurs, wherever you drill down a mile deep and set off explosions to free up natural gas, problems occur. Again, these range from the documented contamination of drinking water near drilling sites to the triggering of earthquakes from the reinjection of the drilling water into the ground. Further health risks include toxic and hormone-disrupting chemicals released into surface and ground waters.
Dominion’s plan is to pipe the fracked gas from as far away as New York and – potentially – from all across Maryland to Cove Point on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Calvert County. There, with the aid of a large new power plant, the gas would be liquefied to 260 degrees below zero. The liquefaction process itself would combust so much gas and use so much propane that it would generate more global warming pollution than four of Maryland’s biggest coal-fired power plants. And Dominion still calls this “clean energy.”
The gas would then be poured onto massive vessels and shipped to India and Japan to be re-vaporized and piped again to be finally lit on fire for energy. According to data from authoritative sources, including the US Environmental Protection Agency and Dominion itself, the “life-cycle” emissions from this process make liquefied and exported fracked gas almost certainly worse for the global atmosphere than burning coal!
Understandably, this is hard for many people to believe. Again, not unlike Big Tobacco in the 1950s, the gas industry has bombarded the public with TV and print ads heralding the appeal and safe-use benefits of gas. But the facts – as with tobacco – are the facts. In early February, a major panel of scientists declared that US cities that switch their bus fleets over to fracked gas are not reducing their greenhouse pollution below conventional fleets. No climate change benefits at all.
Here’s the bottom line for Maryland: The Public Service Commission should immediately reject Dominion’s Cove Point proposal – at least until the company drops its opposition to a full and customary Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Yes, it turns out Dominion doesn’t even want the federal government to conduct a comprehensive environmental statement for its $3.8 billion, highly polluting, region-transforming project. And so far the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has agreed to forgo such a study.
Why does Dominion oppose an EIS? Because it’s the environmental and health equivalent of a Surgeon General’s report, that’s why. Once all the scientific facts are stitched together in an official report – the drilling impacts, the global warming pollution, the local smog in Calvert County – most Marylanders will be alarmed by the findings. Among other things, an EIS would show that residents in southern Maryland can expect worsening asthma rates as their air quality deteriorates from the constant flaring and liquefying of gas.
Which is why, finally, we need the help of Maryland’s top leaders in the U.S. Congress: Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin and senior House leaders Steny Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen. They must demand an Environmental Impact Statement from the federal government as soon as possible.
Maryland needs and deserves a Surgeon General’s report on Cove Point, covering the whole scheme of drilling for fracked gas and exporting it through our state.
Katie Huffling is program director for the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. Joelle Novey is director of Interfaith Power and Light (DC, MD, NoVA). Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network