Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and the two other members of the state Board of Public Works voted Wednesday to give Dominion Resources a tidal wetlands license, one more incremental approval needed by the power company as it aims to build a liquefied natural gas export facility in Calvert County.
In doing so, the governor dashed the hopes of a small group of environmentalists who have been passionately fighting the proposed facility, which is expected to receive final federal approval this summer.
O’Malley was brusque in doing so. The Democrat — who considers himself a dedicated environmentalist and is weighing a White House run in 2016 — is typically spirited and engaged during these often-long meetings, asking questions, cracking jokes and, at least once, taking a moment to share a piece of poetry. But on Wednesday, he was terse and often lacked patience as the meeting went over the two hours he had allotted.
O’Malley opened the meeting by saying that he has often seen simple permits take on “cosmic” importance because they are tangentially connected to a larger, more controversial issue.
“This is one of those days,” he said without smiling.
At the heart of Wednesday’s meeting was a request from Dominion to build a temporary pier on the Patuxent River, southwest of Cove Point near Solomons Island, to offload construction materials that would be needed once federal authorities approve the gas-export facility. State employees had already given the license application a favorable review.
“It’s not even a pier at Cove Point,” O’Malley said at one point. Then, later: “It’s not even a permit, it’s a temporary permit.”
Not approving the license would have hindered and slowed the project but most likely would not have killed it.
The activists who took turns speaking largely focused on Dominion’s much larger proposal: To spend as much as $3.8 billion to expand its Cove Point terminal in Lusby so that it can liquefy natural gas. The gas would be extracted from shale rock layers elsewhere in the region using hydraulic fracturing — a controversial technique better known as fracking — and then liquefied and loaded onto tankers at Cove Point to be taken overseas, likely to India and Japan.
Some environmental activists worry that these exports would increase the demand for fracking. Some residents of Calvert County have raised safety concerns about the facility, along with questions over the impact of the bright lighting, noise and traffic on their quality of life.
As the activists offered opinions and objections, O’Malley read paperwork and worked on his iPad, at one point typing so aggressively that he lurched from side to side. Several times, after a speaker finished, O’Malley looked up and said: “Thank you. Next.”
The governor appeared to fall asleep while one activist described her concern that the new facility could spew out toxins that would damage her health. He did the same thing as another woman held up photos of the Chesapeake Bay. And as another activist asked why the governor had opposed a similar facility in Baltimore County years ago, O’Malley left the room with his coffee cup.
“Should I wait?” asked Tracey Eno of Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community, visibly frustrated. Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), another board member, prompted Eno to continue, saying her comments would be “recorded for posterity.”
Comptroller Peter Franchot, the third member of the board, appeared much more engaged, praising the efforts of the activists and emphasizing the relevance of the issue at hand. He went as far as to compare the Cove Point facility to the controversial Keystone Pipeline.
“When I say this is an important vote, it’s an important vote,” said Franchot (D), who has toyed with the idea of running for governor.
Michael D. Frederick, vice president of liquefied natural gas operations at Cove Point, listed all the good things he said the new plant will do for the state: at least 1,000 construction jobs over three years, 75 permanent jobs once operation begins and $40 million in additional tax revenue for the county each year.
“I could go on and on,” he said.
O’Malley replied: “I think if you want to, you could go on. Put it all out there.”
But when the Dominion executive spoke about which supporters of the project he wanted to testify, the governor cut him off: “How about you let me run the hearing?”
After all of the activists had a chance to testify, O’Malley asked for a head count.
How many oppose the license? Seven stood. Support? Dozens. (Many more on both sides watched the meeting from an overflow room, although the activists were outnumbered there, too.)
O’Malley, Franchot and Kopp voted to approve the license.