Monday, January 7, 2019

Potomac Pipeline Stopped (for now)

Last Wednesday, Maryland’s Board of Public Works voted NO to granting an easement for the Potomac Pipeline right-of-way that would cross the C&O Canal and Maryland Rail Trail to cross under the Potomac River. Citing ongoing environmental concerns about running the gas pipeline under the Potomac River and a lack of benefit to Maryland for these environmental risks, the three members of the Board of Public Works, Governor Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp rejected the request for 0.12-acre easement under the Rail Trail west of Hancock.

As you recall, Columbia Gas Transmission is proposing a new 3.9 mile, 8-inch diameter pipeline to connect Mountaineer Gas (the West Virginia consumer gas distribution company) to gas supplies in Pennsylvania. The proposed pipeline would have been driven about 72 feet below the Potomac River bed using horizontal directional drilling. The new pipeline would bring gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Utica shale in Ohio to a new proposed Mountaineer Gas pipeline, The Mountaineer Xpress project.

On March 16th 2018 the Maryland Department of the Environment granted a state wetlands and waterways permit for the proposed project that included customized conditions specific to the project and its location to ensure protection of public health and the environment. Nonetheless, the Board of Public Works found the risk to the Potomac River to be too high and denied the request for an easement. The Potomac River supplies drinking water to almost 6 million people and any potential threat to the water supply should be carefully studied and fully mitigated.

This Potomac River crossing is part of a new approximate 165 miles of pipeline and three new compressor stations in addition upgrades to existing compressor stations and a regulating station being developed by Columbia Pipeline Group, Inc. This project called the Mountaineer XPress project (MXP) would be able to move an additional 2.7 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale production areas to commercial and consumer markets on the Columbia Gas Transmission system, including markets in western West Virginia.

The technological breakthrough in modern methods of fracking, combined with directional drilling, allowed the United States to tap massive new supplies of shale oil and natural gas, cutting domestic and global energy prices dramatically, improving U.S. energy security and slashing pollution by particulates, and carbon dioxide by displacing coal-fired electric power generation. In addition, natural gas is really good at integrating with renewable energy.

The widespread nature of the shale business has therefore raised questions about its local impacts both costs and benefits. The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) hosted an event on April 17th 2018 which can be viewed on-line that explored these costs and benefits of fracking based on recent research by Michael Greenstone and others. “It’s not as though, if you ban fracking tomorrow, that you are going to have a step-function increase in renewable energy in a way that could satisfy the nature of energy demand that we have today,” said Sue Tierney, a former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Energy under President Clinton and a state cabinet officer for environmental affairs for Massachusetts during the EPIC event. “Renewable energy is already entering the market at a fast pace, and a ban on fracking would make coal more attractive in the marketplace.”

Watch the entire panel discussion for more details, but essentially there are both costs and benefits to fracking and pipelines. Though there are local benefits to fracking that according to Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago, the benefits of fracking and pipelines accrue mostly to society as a whole (though there is a positive household wealth impact with fracking); the costs of fracking and pipelines are borne by the local populations. It is essential that we make sure the costs are not unreasonable.

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