A Montgomery County state legislator has sponsored a bill that would place greater regulations on natural gas pipelines, in the hope of closing a regulatory loophole.
The bill would require the Maryland Department of the Environment to study the environmental impacts of any proposed natural gas pipelines in the state. The bill, called Maryland Pipeline and Water Protection Act, would place greater regulations on natural gas pipelines, a contentious issue in the state, as legislators and activists also have looked to place greater restriction on fossil fuels.
While under the jurisdiction of the federal Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency conducts its own review of any proposed project, but each state affected by the project is allowed the option to conduct its own assessment. The Maryland bill, would require MDE to conduct a review for any proposed project.
On March 7, the members of House Economic Matters committee heard testimony on the bill, with support from the many environmental activist in attendance.
“We in Maryland have to look after our water quality. That’s what it comes down to.” said Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-15), the lead sponsor of the bill in the House.
For Fraser-Hidalgo and environmental activists, the bill is meant to close what they refer to is a loophole in the federal Water Protection Act, which gives states the option to conduct their own environmental reviews but does not mandate them.
The important distinction came into play when TransCanada proposed building a natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania to West Virginia that would cut through the town of Hancock, Maryland, in Washington County, a pipeline that the MDE chose not to review.
While the Maryland Board of Public Works unanimously voted down the project, the fact that MDE decided to not conduct its own environmental review worried many activists and legislators which prompted the proposed legislation, Fraser-Hidalgo said.
“Even though we’ve banned fracking, Maryland is not yet safe from its impacts,” said Senator Bobby Zirkin (D-11), lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate. “We need our state officials to uphold their responsibilities to protect drinking water from fossil fuels by carrying out thorough reviews of fracked-gas pipelines. We need to pass the Pipeline and Water Protection Act.”
Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, testified against the bill, claiming it would require the state to go much further than what the federal government requires for an environmental review.
“It’s critical for us to have this infrastructure, have these pipettes to provide these fuels and energy to consumers in Maryland,” Cobbs said.
Cobbs also questioned the legality of the bill, saying it could violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives the federal government the power to regulate commerce between the states. However, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, disagreed with the assessment, saying if the bill were to become law, it would be legal under both the state and federal constitutions.
For environmentally-minded Maryland officials, natural gas and other fossil fuels have been a point of contention. In 2015, the General Assembly placed a moratorium on fracking, a method used to extract natural gas by pumping liquid into the ground. Many environmentalists protest the practice, saying fracking pollutes groundwater and helps expand the use of fossil fuels, which is considered the primary driver behind climate change.
For those in the industry, fracking is new method to extract a much-needed fuel, one that emits less carbon than other fossil fuels such as oil and coal.
For environmental activists, the bill is another step in Maryland’s track record of environmental regulation. One that would potentially prevent the state from not reviewing a proposed pipeline.
Pipeline construction can result in extensive deforestation and other significant land disturbances that have adverse impacts on local water quality, said Elaine Lutz, Staff Attorney at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“We must ensure that the se impacts are properly assessed and mitigated,” Lutz said. “The Pipeline and Water Protection Act would ensure a thorough review of environmental impacts and provide an appropriate public process, which is currently lacking for these projects.”