Tag Archives: environment

What’s an URDL?

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 10, 2017 — It’s been exactly 50 years since planners in Baltimore County came up with one of the weirdest-sounding bureaucratic acronyms — URDL — that in time has become a national model for sensible growth management. So what’s an URDL?

The Urban-Rural Demarcation Line (pronounced hurdle, but with the “h” silent) was a response to the phenomenal population boom suburban counties experienced after G.I.’s came home from World War II.

In the 1950s, Baltimore County experienced an 82 percent surge in residents. In just one decade, 220,000 people decided to call Baltimore County home. This set off a massive construction wave of housing and retail developments.

This, in turn, put enormous pressure on county government to build an unheard-of number of new schools, extend water and sewer lines and dramatically increase government services to new residents.

Particularly troubling was the helter-skelter nature of this post-war suburban boom, much of it posing a threat to the rural character of the county and an even greater threat to the financial health of county government.

Novel Notion

URDL was created by the Baltimore County Planning Board in 1967 with the then-novel idea that the county should focus population growth in a handful of prime areas inside the URDL while land beyond the demarcation line retains its rural qualities.

Today, URDL is the crown jewel of Baltimore County, having been recognized by the American Planning Council as the “gold standard” for preserving rolling hills and valleys while at the same time concentrating residential and retail growth in compact areas where services can be delivered efficiently and cost-effectively.

What's an URDL?

Baltimore County’s URDL–Urban-Rural Demarcation Line (in red).

Other jurisdictions in Maryland facing similar urban-rural conflicts have followed the lead of Baltimore County. And why not? It’s about as smart a “smart growth” plan as anything you can think of.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said at a ceremony last week honoring URDL’s golden anniversary that in his near-quarter century as an elected official nothing else has come close to matching the significance of the adoption of this demarcation line.

It was a “prescient move,” he noted, probably the most important step taken by county leaders. No doubt Kamenetz, who is running for governor, will repeatedly remind voters in next year’s campaign about his championing and embrace of the URDL.

For five decades elected officials in the county have resisted developer pressure to shrink the rural portion of the URDL. Thank goodness for that.

Today, Baltimore County devotes two-thirds of its land — 258,000 acres — to rural and environmentally protected uses. The county’s 831,000 residents live on the remaining 130,000 acres, with designated centers such as Owings Mills, Towson and White Marsh targeted as sites for future growth.

What this means is that many county residents can hop in a car and within a matter of minutes find themselves surrounded not by suburban retail mania and clustered housing but in pristine, green countryside.

Proximity of the URDL

Try it. Drive to the Hunt Valley Towne Centre with its shops, Wegmans and dining. To the east lies the busy York Road shopping corridor.  To the south lies the large McCormick Business Park, but to the north and west lie scenic rolling hills and lots and lots of horse farms.

Indeed, the only direct route from Reisterstown to Hunt Valley takes you through one of the most wondrous byways imaginable — horse country with virtually nothing to mar the view as far as the eye can see.

It’s a tribute to the county’s leadership that such a large, suburbanized jurisdiction — part of metropolis of 2.7 million — still holds on with determination to its rural character.

Preservation of rural land keeps agriculture thriving, protects the county’s watershed, maintains the environmental purity of forests and green spaces and gives residents an enhanced quality of life.

Other Maryland counties faced with the same problems have done likewise — neighboring Harford and Carroll counties, for instance, as well as Montgomery County. All of them have taken steps to keep growth tightly focused and to preserve as much as possible of their rural heritage.

Too often, we only hear about problems and woes of local governments. Once in a while, it’s nice to be reminded of good news.

So happy 50th anniversary, URDL.

May this planning mandate continue to provide officials around the nation with a sound and sensible way to promote economic growth and vitality while also preserving the integrity of our irreplaceable countryside.

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To Frack or Not to Frack?

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 27, 2016–With apologies to W. Shakespeare, the continuing battle over gas exploration in Maryland’s far-western Garrett County reads like this:

“To frack or not to frack, that is the question.

“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer environmentalists’ slings and arrows of an outrageous drilling ban or take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing them, let the state moratorium lapse, crack open Marcellus shale and unleash the fortunes flowing from natural gas.”

It’s a furious dispute which has dragged on for years.

Environmentalists view hydraulic fracturing of black Marcellus shale in mountainous Garrett County as pure evil sure to pollute drinking water, pristine streams, the health of citizens and lay waste to 100,000 acres in the state’s most remote county.

Proponents say that’s buncombe. Done safely and with plenty of state oversight, “fracking” as it is called can be accomplished – and is accomplished all over the country – without damning side effects.

(Fracking has been used in well production since 1950, but didn’t become the superstar of oil drilling until this century, thanks to recent advances in petro-geology, fluid dynamics, engineering, computing, horizontal drilling and 3D seismic imaging.)

Cracking Open Shale

Today, one-half of all U.S. crude oil production and two-thirds of all natural gas production comes from wells that employ fracking – sending a mix of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals through underground pipes drilled horizontally that cracks open ancient layers of shale, thus releasing previously unreachable pools of petroleum liquids.

Yet in Maryland, the “shale revolution” hasn’t happened.

Under intense pressure from a core Democratic voting group – environmentalists – Gov. Martin O’Malley declared a moratorium in 2011 while a scientific study was undertaken.

Much to the activists’ dismay, the panel concluded fracking could be done safely if the state imposed strong regulations. This led O’Malley to promulgate tough, restrictive rules for fracking in 2014.

Unsatisfied, anti-frackers got the legislature to approve another two-year moratorium in 2015. Gov. Larry Hogan refused to sign the bill but didn’t stop it from becoming law.

That led to new state regulations now awaiting approval by a joint legislative panel. Meanwhile, the moratorium runs out in October.

Push for Complete Ban

Environmentalists are determined to push through a permanent fracking ban in Maryland this legislative session. Whether there would be enough votes to overturn a likely Hogan veto remains in question.

Forgotten in this bitter back-and-forth are the land owners of isolated Garrett County who sorely need the financial boost that could come through drilling on their lands.

Farming communities in Pennsylvania and West Virginia have reaped huge lease and royalty payments from oil companies who hit pay dirt in those two states.

In fact, Pennsylvania now ranks No. 1 in shale gas production (ahead of Texas) and West Virginia ranks No. 3. They are the prime beneficiaries of the massive amounts of Marcellus shale under land in that part of the country.

But petroleum firms no longer show interest in Maryland.

Deterrents to Fracking

First there’s the regulatory and legislative uncertainty. No company wants to risk tens of millions of dollars in a state where the door could be slammed shut at any time.

Second, there’s the extremely low price of natural gas, a trend that shows no signs of abating, possibly for decades.

Third, there’s the small amount of reachable petroleum liquids in the Marcellus shale beneath Garrett County and a portion of neighboring Alleghany County. The numbers just don’t add up for oil companies.

Tapping into shale formations with new technologies revolutionized this nation’s energy situation. Fracked wells tripled in just five years. Drilling has been most intense in North Dakota, Montana, Texas, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

But this fracking phenomenon also has driven down the price of natural gas to such low levels that exploration in questionable regions like Maryland is uneconomic.

A law permanently banning fracking in Maryland would foreclose any chance of Garrett landowners ever benefiting from higher natural gas prices and breakthroughs in drilling technologies that might make hydraulic fracturing safe and secure.

Events beyond the state’s control already have determined that fracking won’t happen in Maryland any time soon. That plus Hogan’s new regulations – said to be the toughest in the country – appear to provide assurance that environmentalists’ worst nightmares won’t come true.

That should have ended this rancorous discussion but it hasn’t. Environmentalists want a grand-slam home run that purges even the thought of fracking ever occurring in Maryland.

But forever is an awfully long time, a fact that may dissuade enough lawmakers from turning their backs totally on Garrett County land owners.

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Giving Frosh His Independence

 

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 20, 2017—You can’t blame Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., for getting irritated over the Maryland attorney general’s new authority – granted by the General Assembly – to sue the federal government without the governor’s permission.

This strips Hogan of a smidgen of his enormous powers. Yet if the Republican chief executive truly wished to stop this slight weakening of his powers all he had to do was pick up the phone and negotiate a compromise.

Instead, Hogan gave Attorney General Brian Frosh, one of the mildest mannered men in politics, the cold shoulder when Frosh requested the go-ahead to object in court to President Trump’s temporary ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim nations.

Giving Frosh His Independence

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh

Hogan called the delegation of power to Frosh “crazy” and “horrible” – but the real nuttiness lies in Hogan’s refusal to talk through his objections with Frosh and come to a reasonable arrangement each could live with.

Political Divide

Sure, Hogan is a conservative Republican to the core and Frosh is a down-the-line Montgomery County liberal Democrat.

Still, Frosh almost never picks a fight. His 20 years in the legislature were marked by quiet persuasion based on facts, open dialogue and finding middle ground.

Only when Frosh asked for permission to sue, provided back-up documentation to the governor and was met by silence did he opt to make an un-Frosh-like aggressive move.

Democrats in the House and Senate were happy to help him, since they were alarmed by Trump’s executive order against Muslim refugees and immigrants.

Numerous state attorneys general sued to stop the president’s executive order and temporarily succeeded in blocking it. Frosh wanted authorization from Hogan to do the same thing.

He said he was concerned by clear indications the new administration will wipe out the Affordable Care Act that gives health insurance to 430,000 Marylanders and anti-environmental steps that could damage the health of the Chesapeake Bay. He wanted the tools to speak out on Maryland’s behalf in court.

Weak A.G.

Maryland is one of a handful of states that didn’t –until last week – give its attorney general the independence to sue the federal government without getting an okay from the governor.

Indeed, this state has one of the weakest attorney general offices in the country. Only on rare occasions can Frosh’s office conduct a criminal investigation and try the case—the state’s constitution handed over those broad powers to the local state’s attorneys in 1851.

Maryland’s attorney general primarily staffs the law offices of state agencies, gives legal advice to the governor, General Assembly and judiciary, handles consumer protection issues, defends the state in court litigation and files lawsuits on behalf of state agencies.

Yet this is a statewide office just like the governor and state comptroller. All three are elected by Maryland voters every four years. Their authority is spelled out in the Maryland constitution. Yet Frosh’s office is unusually dependent on the governor for permission to act.

That’s never been a healthy situation.

Why create a constitutional law office without giving that office the freedom to carry out the full range of legal responsibilities normally handled by an attorney general in other states?

Why make the Maryland attorney general such a weak reed, unable to speak for the state on legal matters without first coming on bended knee to the governor for consent?

The current conflict over separation of powers never surfaced when Democrats occupied both offices. Usually the two elected officers were on the same political wave length and agreed on occasional litigation to protest federal actions.

Cover for Hogan

Under Hogan and at times under Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich disagreements have surfaced. Yet this need not have reached a point of separation if Hogan had ordered his skilled legal counsel, Robert Scholz, to work out an accommodation.

Frosh may have been close to the truth when he suggested this new arrangement actually gives Hogan the best of both worlds – despite the governor’s public protests.

Hogan doesn’t want to go on record opposing the new Republican president. He’s trying hard to ignore anything and everything Trump says that provokes controversy.

Yet it’s no secret radicals in the new administration want to deep-six Obamacare and purge all sorts of environmental regulations that could set back efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Someone has to speak out and protest in court at the appropriate time. Hogan doesn’t want to alienate his Republican core base, yet extreme actions in Washington may require pushback from Maryland to avert harm to citizens and the “Land of Pleasant Living.”

The new delegation of authority by the legislature to Frosh solves that dilemma quite neatly for Hogan. He can continue to ignore Trumpian broadsides and dangerous executive orders while Frosh, on his own volition, tries to block Trump’s moves in court.

The governor’s hands are clean. He hasn’t forsaken the Republican president.

(He also can try to dissuade Frosh through well-reasoned arguments. The power granted Frosh requires that he notify Hogan of the attorney general’s intention to sue, wait 10 days so the governor can put any concerns he has in writing, and then Frosh must “consider the Governor’s  objection before commencing the suit or action.”)

Re-election Battle?

The real danger for Hogan could lie in the next six to 12 months if Trump takes such extreme steps affecting Marylanders, the state’s social programs and its natural resources that Frosh becomes the hero of the day – filing lawsuits repeatedly to stop or reverse Trump’s moves.

Should Hogan continue to remain mum during that time, ignoring the human toll of Trump’s actions, it might hurt the governor’s re-election chances.

Thus, Brian Frosh might place himself at the head of the pack of candidates running for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Could Hogan then face off against the attorney general in November 2018 just as Frosh’s popularity in vote-heavy Central Maryland soars due to his role as Maryland’s defender against heavy-handed actions from Washington?

It’s not far-fetched.

That possibility gains credence with Frosh’s request for a future annual budget of $1 million to create a five-person legal staff to sue the Trump administration when the public interest or welfare of Maryland citizens is threatened – be it their health, public safety, civil liberties, economic security, environment, natural resources or travel restrictions.

If Hogan, for political reasons, won’t oppose Trump and radicals in the administration, Frosh is the logical person to fill that void.

Giving him the power to act isn’t wild and crazy. It’s in line with the way things work in most other states. It ensures that Maryland’s interests will be defended by at least one statewide, constitutional officer elected by the people.

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Fracking Follies in Annapolis

By Barry Rascovar

March 30, 2015 — Shakespeare, as usual, had it right. “Full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” That describes the squabbling in Annapolis over hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.”

It is Maryland’s phantom issue.

Environmentalists and do-gooder legislators are panicked that fracking will mean earthquakes, tainted drinking water, dirty air, despoliation of pristine farmland and other biblical plagues. They want to bar this drilling procedure forever in Maryland.

fracking-2

Hydraulic Fracturing

 

Never mind that wide-spread fracking has been going on since 1950. In those 65 years, more than one million wells have been fracked, in which a combination of water, sand and chemicals is pumped under high pressure deep into shale formations. This fractures the rock and sends deposits of oil and/or natural gas gushing to the surface.

Low Oil Prices = No Fracking

There’s only a tiny part of Maryland where hydraulic fracturing into the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation is viable — in far Western Maryland, i.e., portions of Garrett County and a bit of Allegany County. The number of farmers who might benefit from oil and gas royalties is very small.

Moreover, no oil or gas driller is interested in Maryland any longer. The steep plunge in oil and gas prices makes fracking in the state far too costly now or any time in the foreseeable future.

So the arguments in Annapolis are largely speculative.

Environmentalists continue to spout off about the doom and gloom that will descend on Maryland if fracking is allowed — part of a larger argument by environmental zealots who seek to ban coal and even gas-fired power plants, nuclear power plants, the export of liquified natural gas, as well as wind farms in state parks (they won that fight) and wind farms on the lower Eastern Shore.

O’Malley Study

The O’Malley administration, never a friend of business-development if it bumped up against the fears of the environmental community, forbid fracking for three years while it conducted a lengthy, in-depth, scientific study.

The results pleased no one: The research showed fracking could be done safely in Maryland, but only under very strict state supervision — the strictest rules in the nation.

Even that hasn’t made environmentalists happy. Nothing short of a permanent ban will satisfy them.

A bill imposing another three-year moratorium — totally meaningless in today’s low-cost energy world — has made it out of the House of Delegates. Prospects in the Senate are less certain. The bill calls for a 36-month study that would largely duplicate the O’Malley administration’s extensive research.

Meanwhile, a Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County, offers an even more extreme step that kills any possibility of fracking coming to Maryland.

It creates extraordinary legal liability standards, calling fracking “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous” and requires a $10 million insurance policy that must be in place for six years after drilling ends.

Few Side Effects

Funny thing: Over the past 65 years, fracking has been conducted without much in the way of negative side effects.

The industry has used fracking over 1 million times and the number of “ultrahazardous” outcomes has been tiny.

“Abnormally dangerous”? It would be hard to make that assertion stand up statistically.

It would be as if the Maryland legislature declared airplane travel “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous” due to a few highly publicized crashes — even though the odds of being killed this way are 1 in 30 million.

The fracking follies in Annapolis are a case of populist rhetoric run amuck. It’s a do-gooder attempt to outlaw something that is no longer on the radar screen in Maryland — and won’t be for years or decades to come.

Waste of Energy

Making it impossible for oil and natural gas companies to drill in Maryland — even under exceptionally close state supervision — is the sort of anti-business hostility Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. may not be able to tolerate.

A veto could await either the House bill or the Senate bill.

Still, all of this is academic — an exercise in wasted energy.

As long as oil and gas prices remain depressed, fracking has zero future in Maryland. The legislature has better things to do in its remaining days before its April 13 adjournment.

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Sparrows Point Gold?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 8, 2014 — Today, it’s a forlorn hulk, a remnant of what once was the world’s largest steel-making plant, stretching four miles end-to-end on the Sparrows Point peninsula.

Abandoned Sparrows Point steel plant

Labor Day used to be special for the 30,000 people who worked at the Bethlehem Steel complex at its peak. They churned out cables for the George Washington Bridge, girders for the Golden Gate Bridge and steel for machinery and equipment that helped win World War II.

Then after 124 years of operation, it was over. The blast furnaces closed for good in June 2012, the property sold for a pittance to a liquidator.

Now there is reason for optimism “The Point” once again might be turned into economic gold.

Baltimore County and the Port of Baltimore have come up with pragmatic plans to redevelop this vast acreage — 5.3 square miles — into a major jobs generator.

Sparrows Point plant in good times

Sparrows Point plant in good times

Even better, an investment group with deep pockets and strong local connections is negotiating to buy most of the Bethlehem Steel land in southeastern Baltimore County.

Jim Davis heads Redwood Capital Investment, which wants to become the new property owner. Davis’ name isn’t as familiar to readers as his cousin, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.

The two co-founded a job-staffing service in the 1980s, Aerotek, which morphed into the country’s largest privately held international staffing company — a $10 billion giant called Allegis Group with 12,000 employees and 120,000 contract workers. Its headquarters are in Hanover, not far from Arundel Mills.

Davis went on to purchase Erickson Retirement senior living communities and a host of other real estate and financial investments through Redwood. Now he is seeking most of the Sparrows Point acreage.

The Point’s Potential

If Davis follows the path laid out by a county task force and the Port of Baltimore, The Point some day will be humming with maritime crews, manufacturing and assembly workers, energy operators and distribution and freight employees.

It could be the most promising economic development story for Maryland in decades.

Nowhere in the Northeast is there such an enormous chunk of land already zoned for industrial use.

While 600 acres is heavily contaminated after a century of steel-making, some 2,400 acres won’t need much work to be placed on the market.

A good part of it overlooks the Chesapeake Bay — six linear miles of deep-water frontage perfectly suited for the port’s expansion needs.

Sparrows Point redevelopment area

Sparrows Point redevelopment area

If Baltimore is to take full advantage of a widened Panama Canal in 2016, it needs additional berths for the giant “post-Panamax” container ships (more than three football fields long) that require 50-foot channels and extra-long cranes.

Sparrows Point already has a 45-foot iron ore pier that could handle roll-on, roll-off cargo like automobiles and farm equipment; a second pier ideal for barges and smaller vessels; a short-line railroad that links to both CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks, and lots and lots of cargo storage space.

Dredge Deposit Site

There’s also Coke Point, where port officials want to deposit tons of dredged harbor muck over the next decade or two. Once filled in, this “de-watered” land can be prepared for use as a state-of-the-art, deepwater super-cargo berth similar to Seagirt Marine Terminal, built on dredged material from construction of the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

That’s just the start of the good news.

The task force, appointed by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, thinks some of the the peninsula is well suited for an energy park containing a natural gas plant, solar and wind farms, a biomass energy plant and a landfill gas plant.

This makes enormous sense. Central Maryland pays heavily to import electric power from out of state. It lacks sufficient transmission lines, too.

Neat Fit for Clean Energy

But The Point already has heavy-duty transmission lines that fed electricity to Beth Steel’s blast furnaces. Clean-energy production would be a nice fit, especially since the facilities wouldn’t be close to residential neighborhoods.

Other uses pinpointed by the task force include innovative manufacturing and value-added assembly for rail cars, ships, marine vehicles, specialty machinery and electric equipment; distribution and logistics parks, and “freight villages” offering warehouse space and service and equipment support.

Additionally, the task force noted a 400-acre quarry on the property soon will be ending its useful life. This opens the way for another “extraordinary vacant land-mass opportunity.”

Part of Beth Steel property

Part of Beth Steel property

It’s almost too good to be true.

And it may be. Davis has to finalize his group’s land purchase. Then he must negotiate terms with the state for the waterfront property. His company will be juggling many development balls simultaneously.

Of course, there’s the overhanging environmental concerns that first must be resolved.

Eventually, though, The Point might make a surprisingly strong comeback.

You couldn’t ask for a better located 5.3 square miles of land — much of it fronting deep water, practically on top of I-95 and the Baltimore Beltway, already connected to major railroads, a short drive from BWI Marshall Airport and at the mid-point of the East Coast’s massive megalopolis.

The State’s Role

It will take major investments from the state to give the Port of Baltimore these long-lasting advantages over other Atlantic ports of call. It’s not clear if the state’s next administration will be up to the task or if politics will intrude as the Transportation Department tries to find the money for this expensive project in its already stretched budget.

Given the recent debacle in finding a freight transfer site for CSX near the port, the MPA’s Sparrows Point expansion takes on heightened significance.

Environmental cleanups will cost someone a small fortune, though. It’s a key sticking point that must be resolved.

The county will play a role in smoothing the way for interested companies who see the vast potential of Sparrows Point. Baltimore City will have to make accommodations, too, especially in finding space to build a full interstate interchange at Broening Highway.

It’s too great an opportunity to let slip away, though.

For over 100 years, from 1889 until 2012, Sparrows Point was a beacon of jobs and success for the Greater Baltimore region. It can happen again — if there’s the will to make it happen.

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Common Sense and LNG Exports

By Barry Rascovar

March 10, 2014 — FINALLY, a dose of common sense in the swirl of hysterical hype and fear-mongering by environmental groups over the proposed liquid natural gas export project at Cove Point in Southern Maryland.

Cove Point LNG Terminal in Lusby, MD

Cove Point LNG Terminal in Lusby, MD

If you listen to the protesting greenies, this $3.8 billion project by the large energy company Dominion will send natural gas prices higher, promote the use of dirty energy sources like oil and coal, pollute the Chesapeake Bay, pollute Maryland’s air, worsen global warming and encourage more shale-oil fracking.

Few of those assertions have much credence. Some are bald-faced, and intentional, twisting of the truth.

More on target is Virginia-based Dominion’s assertion that environmentalists are trying to use this LNG project as a proxy for their war on hydraulic fracturing of shale rock and the Keystone Pipeline. Neither has a direct link to what Dominion wants to do.

‘Clear and Unambiguous’

That’s why it was refreshing to hear common sense applied to this propaganda battle by Judge Michele Hotten of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, who strongly supported a circuit court ruling in Dominion’s favor.

It was “clear and unambiguous,” the judge wrote in a recent 3-0 decision, that an LNG export terminal is permitted at Cove Point under a 2005 agreement with environmental groups. Period. End of argument.

Those groups won’t let it end, though. They are intent on litigating this project ad infinitum — anything to delay and eventually kill this evil proposal.

The problem is that what Dominion wants to do at Cove Point isn’t evil. It isn’t a pox on the environment. Quite the contrary.

Proposed expansion at Cove Point LNG Terminal

Proposed expansion at Cove Point Terminal

Dominion wants to export $6 billion a year in LNG to India and Japan, two nations that are heavy polluters of the air by burning huge amounts of oil and coal. Natural gas, by contrast, is a far cleaner-burning substitute source of energy and a far more energy-efficient commodity.

Which is better: Burning coal and oil or burning natural gas?

We should know the answer since Maryland and most other states are forcing utilities to shutter their existing oil-burning and coal-burning electric plants in favor of the vastly superior alternative, natural gas.

Double-hulled Tankers

But won’t Cove Point harm the bay?

Not really. Dominion expects about 85 double-hulled tankers to visit its terminal annually — the same number as visited Cove Point at its peak when it served as an import terminal between 1978 and 1980. Besides, LNG is super-safe. If there’s a spill, the natural gas evaporates and dissipates because it is lighter than air. There has yet to be an environmental disaster caused by an LNG tanker.

But won’t Cove Point stimulate more fracking?

Of course not. That’s a manufactured canard. Cove Point’s exports won’t influence the decision by energy companies to drill for oil and gas using hydraulic fracturing techniques. The rush is on to discover more of this country’s abundant supply of cleaner-burning natural gas. If Cove Point never exports a cubic foot of LNG it will have zero impact on the future of fracking.

Nor will Cove Point have anything to do with the Keystone Pipeline decision. Connecting the two is preposterous and an indication of extreme paranoia.

Given that Cove Point is one of 21 LNG export proposals seeking regulatory approval — plus another six that have gotten the federal go-ahead, its impact in the greater scheme of things is being incredibly overblown.

Impact on Pricing

Won’t Dominion raise natural gas prices by exporting this commodity?

Pure buncombe. Two years from now, U.S. production of natural gas is projected to exceed domestic consumption. Energy independence is within reach.

Once the U.S. starts exporting energy, it will have a positive impact on shrinking this country’s trade deficit.

A new office within the State Department is vigorously pursuing “energy diplomacy” based on the growing U.S. ability to export vast quantities of LNG. Natural gas exports are likely to become a key geopolitical weapon against Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine and a way to draw that struggling nation away from Vladimir Putin’s grasp.

Cove Point exports, starting in 2017, will be part of that American effort. The LNG plant also will provide a big boost for Maryland’s economy. Thousands of high-paying construction jobs. Seventy-five new permanent jobs. A 60 percent boost in Maryland’s exports. A big jump in sales and income taxes for the state and Calvert County.

No wonder an overflow crowd at a March 1 hearing in Southern Maryland overwhelmingly supported Dominion’s project.

LNG hearing in Southern Maryland

LNG hearing in Southern Maryland

That hasn’t stopped the greenies, who rounded up supporters from the Baltimore area to stage a big protest as the Maryland Public Service Commission began hearings on this case.

Anti-Cove Point protesters in Baltimore

Anti-Cove Point protesters in Baltimore

But the PSC’s role is narrow: Whether to permit construction of two natural gas turbines that will provide the energy for compressing the natural gas to minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s when the gas turns to liquid).

Baltimore protest of LNG Terminal project

Baltimore protest of LNG Terminal project

The PSC’s staff has recommended approval. It’s pretty much a straight-forward proposal — two clean-burning turbines to power the liquefaction. The heat generated during that process would be recycled to provide energy for the rest of the Cove Point facility, thus reducing the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This project is being studied to exhaustion. Twenty-one thousand pages of reports and information have been prepared for regulatory agencies. Fifty more permits and approvals are still needed before the three-year construction phase commences. Final approval rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy.

That’s why it was refreshing to see the courts take a no-nonsense approach and examine the facts rather than heeding the heated, emotional rhetoric of opponents. But this battle is far from over, which is a shame.

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Rainy Day in Annapolis Towne

(Note: This article appeared in the inaugural issue of Center Maryland Magazine.)

By Barry Rascovar

It is often true that legislative reforms require a second round of revisions to make them workable. That’s the case with the misnamed “rain tax.”

Passed in 2012, this stormwater remediation measure attacks a troubling problem – pollution of the Chesapeake Bay from pet waste, sediment, fertilizers, pesticides and auto fluids. Storms wash this scum off urban and suburban streets, parking lots and rooftops. It winds up in the bay.

Impervious surface

Impervious Surface

This is a huge concern for those who treasure Maryland’s most precious resource.

For instance, stormwater pollutants account for 37 percent of nitrogen in the Magothy River, 94 percent of excess phosphorus, and virtually all sediment and bacterial contaminants.

Fifteen percent of the bay’s nitrogen stems from urban and suburban storm runoff.

The 2012 statute requires Baltimore City and nine counties to enact a fee for stormwater improvements. It’s part of the state’s compliance with Washington’s “pollution diet” for the bay.

Permeable Surface

Permeable Surface

Little controversy surrounded the 2012 bill, but as implementation day neared in mid-2013, Republicans raised a ruckus. In a slick PR move, they started calling it the “rain tax.”

Frederick County Commissioners set their stormwater fee at a symbolic penny. Carroll County Commissioners defied the state entirely.

Other Republicans played politics, too. Laura Neuman, the new Anne Arundel executive, vetoed a stormwater fee (it was overridden by the council). She is in a tough race to win a full term.

David Craig, the Harford County executive running for governor, wants to abolish his county’s stormwater tax – though he introduced the bill and signed it into law. He also wants to wipe out the state law, a sine qua non for GOP candidates this year.

Like it or not, legislators find this issue before them in the current session.

No politician wants to endorse an unpopular tax in an election year but Democrats are in a bind. Environmentalism is a key part of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s national campaign and Democratic lawmakers won’t renege on their commitment to the bay.

The trick is making the law more palatable.

Republicans will have a field day protesting Democratic amendments, yet they know it’s all sound and fury.

Revisions could lead to a uniform stormwater fee in the 10 jurisdictions – such as a surcharge on the state property tax – or making the counties and Baltimore responsible for contributing a set amount to remediation projects but letting local officials decide how to raise the money.

In the end, a less incendiary version of the “rain tax” will pass. There’s too much at stake for O’Malley and Democratic lawmakers to back down.

Barry Rascovar, formerly a columnist for The Baltimore Sun and the Gazette Newspapers, writes regularly at www.politicalmaryland.com

 

 

Law Clinics, Farmers and Fairness

By Barry Rascovar / August 3, 2013

THE SAD SAGA of the Hudson Family farm continues.

You remember the Hudsons, who raise Cornish hens for Perdue and also a herd of beef cattle on 300 acres near Berlin on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore.

Alan and Kristin Hudson

Alan and Kristin Hudson

Alan and Kristin Hudson got sued in 2007 by the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance, which hoped to win a landmark case holding Perdue liable for water pollution in drainage ditches caused by chicken manure from a sub-contractor like the Hudsons.

The plaintiffs, represented in part by the University of Maryland’s Environmental Law Clinic, embarrassed themselves. It was such a botched job that it makes an ideal case study (perhaps at the rival University of Baltimore Law School).

Now comes the sequel: The federal judge who threw out the Waterkeeper case with critical comments about the poor quality of attorney work has now denied Perdue and the Hudsons $3 million in legal fees.

But in doing so, U.S. District Senior Judge William Nickerson pounded the law clinic and environmental group once again. He said their lawyers presented a weak case; they intentionally misled the public in statements to the media; settlement efforts were insincere, and their terrible pre-trial preparation led to defeat in court.

If ever there was a teachable moment for law school students, this is it.

Plaintiff’s Missed Opportunities 

Here’s what Judge Nickerson had to say:

“Plaintiff only needed to establish that Hudson’s chickens contributed in some way to the high levels of pollutants coming off the farm and ultimately entering the Pocomoke River.” But the Waterkeeper lawyers missed that chance by “the lack of sufficient and appropriate sampling and testing.” Such an elemental mistake, the judge concluded, made it impossible to tell if the chickens or the cows caused the water pollution.

When the clinic’s legal team switched tactics and tried to blame bacterial pollution on “chicken dust” from exhaust fans in the chicken houses, it again failed to take samples. The judge wrote in a biting commentary, “One is left to ponder why Plaintiff failed to conduct the testing that, at least in hindsight, seems so obviously necessary and critical to the proof of its claim.”

This, according to the judge, was a key “tactical misjudgment.”

The case turned, in his view, on the Waterkeeper and law clinic lawyers’ “failure to properly prepare its case by conducting the necessary sampling.”

Poor Legal Work

In a classic judicial understatement, Judge Nickerson added, “In this Court’s view, Plaintiff’s claim was not pursued or litigated as well as it could have been.”

Put in more common terms, it was a royal screw-up.

Yet because the case wasn’t frivolous or unreasonable, the judge decided punitive payment of legal fees should not be assessed.

Judge Nickerson was especially upset about the Waterkeeper and law clinic attorneys’ handling of pre-trial settlement talks. He looked at all the negotiating documents and concluded litigators were “not seriously working to settle this matter.” Indeed, they demanded more concessions from Perdue than they could have gained in court, according to the judge.

They rejected a Perdue offer to jointly fund an educational institution to study agriculture-related issues. As a result of the Waterkeeper’s hostile action, Perdue also ended a clean waters initiative to help chicken farmers become better environmental stewards.

With considerable sadness the judge wrote, “It is disappointing that no agreement that could have actually benefitted the Chesapeake Bay came from these negotiations. . . . It is most unfortunate that so much time and so many resources were expended on this action that accomplished so little.”

The non-diplomatic version: What a pathetic effort and what a waste of time and money that could have been put toward cleaning up the bay.

On to Annapolis

That’s not the end, though.

The Hudsons’ lawyer says he will go before the state Board of Public Works demanding reimbursement for legal fees.

There’s $300,000 in the state budget because of the law clinic’s questionable involvement in prosecuting (critics use the word “persecuting”) the Hudsons. Gov. Martin O’Malley got so angry he wrote to the law school dean about the propriety of such partisan educational activity.

Enraged rural legislators also tacked another $250,000 onto the budget for the University of Maryland to start an agricultural law clinic or advisory group to “assist farmers in the state with estates and trusts issues, compliance with environmental laws and other matters necessary to preserve family farms.”

Clearly, the law clinic’s ill-fated representation of the Waterkeeper Alliance in going after Eastern Shore chicken farmers has generated widespread State House skepticism.

When the reimbursement issue comes before the board, pointed questions will almost surely be directed at the law clinic and the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s president.

This unfortunate judicial episode could have and should have been avoided. It is proving costly to taxpayers and deeply embarrassing to the law clinic.

It’s time to move on, if only leaders at the law school can put their personal and professional egos aside long enough to find an even-handed way to teach students about both sides of environmental law.

 ###

Bad Science And The ‘Rain Tax’

By Barry Rascovar / May 24, 2014

Chesapeake Bay   A STORM IS BREWING in the Chesapeake region over ways to go about, and pay for, the bay’s expensive pollution cleanup.

Conservative politicians, especially Republicans, are having a field day deriding the stormwater runoff fee mandated last year by the Maryland General Assembly. Local Baltimore-Washington governments must set fee schedules by July 1. Whoever first attached the derisive moniker “rain tax” to the stormwater levy deserves a gold star from Propaganda Addicts Anonymous.

The phrase stuck like crazy glue. It has come to symbolize — in a gross distortion — the overreach of an oppressive, heavily intrusive government in the Annapolis State House. “Now they’re even taxing the rain!” is the way those in the no-tax crowd describe the situation.

What a great slogan for spinning the story. No tax is a good tax in the eyes of these neo-Republicans, but a tax on rain? How ludicrous.

Never mind that the levy makes eminent sense. Polluted water running off non-absorbing services — like driveways, roofs, roads, and parking lots — contribute mightily to today’s pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the world’s most valuable estuaries.

Truth be told, a tax on impervious surfaces should have been put in place decades ago. It’s so obvious that this dirty runoff, chock full of nitrogen, phosphorus and other harmful chemicals, needs to be treated before reaching the bay.

That’s going to cost a pretty penny, which is compounded by Maryland’s late start. The Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup plan comes in at nearly $15 billion with the states footing a large share of the bill.

As much as opponents mock the “rain tax,” they haven’t proposed an alternative. Ignore the problem? Let the Chesapeake slowly turn into a massive “dead zone”?  Pollution remedies are not cheap. Some taxes are necessary and inevitable.

Unfortunately, too many local leaders are imposing large and sometimes onerous fees on businesses with industrial and commercial property containing lots of impervious surface. That could drive companies to other subdivisions with cheaper fees.

Things could get far worse in the ten Maryland counties implementing stormwater runoff fees. Indeed, these levies could mount in future years due to flawed scientific data affecting another aspect of the Chesapeake cleanup.

It turns out the EPA may have been dead wrong in blaming farmers, especially poultry farmers, for much of the bay’s pollution problems. A study conducted by two University of Delaware professors and a University of Maryland poultry specialist found the EPA’s computer models for determining Chesapeake pollutants decades out of date.

Bad science leads to bad results. In this case, the study showed actual phosphorous pollution from poultry manure in one Delaware county (Sussex) was less than half the EPA figure. Nitrogen pollution was 38 percent of the EPA number and total chicken manure produced turned out to be just one-fifth of the EPA figure.

These are huge differences. The EPA could be wildly overestimating the extent to which poultry farmers pollute bay waters. The professors, led by James Glancey, studied thousands of manure tests and recent shipment logs rather than relying on old EPA data from the 1980s.

Even though the potentially landmark study has not yet been peer reviewed or published, an EPA work group and state environmental officials may move quickly to modernize the bay’s computer models. Glancey’s results are hard to refute because they flow from current data.

This could mean reduced emphasis on new regulations to rein in pollutants from Delmarva farms and far greater emphasis on the obvious major contributor, suburban and urban water pollution sources.

If that, indeed, is the case, the derided “rain tax” may need to be increased consistently in future years.

After a heavy storm, visit Baltimore City’s Inner Harbor and look at what flows into the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River from the Jones Falls. It’s not pretty.

Cleaning up this mess, and others like it in the Chesapeake catchment area, will take a long time and a lot more dollars from the “rain tax.”