Volume 12, Issue 21 ~ May 20-26, 2004
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by Sandra Olivetti Martin
Projections Not Promises
Cove Point gas venture could prove prosperity or hot air for Calvert

Dominion Cove Point projects a long and rosy future for its economic alliance with Calvert County.

Less than a year after the liquefied natural gas shipping terminal opened on Calvert’s southern Bay shore, plans are being laid to double its capacity.

The quiet planning has huge impacts for the Chesapeake Bay, among them traffic of heavily guarded supertankers far beyond what was presented three years ago when permits for the risky new venture were issued.

LNG is a hot commodity, and Dominion is poised to strike while the iron is hot.

As long as that heat lasts, Dominion’s growth could mean prosperity for Calvert County, according to a new economic impact study commissioned by the massive, diversified parent utility. Over the life of the alliance, new wealth for the county and region is projected at $91.2 million.

“A real win for the county,” David Hale, president of Calvert’s Board of Commissioners, called the expansion-generated prosperity.

But commodity futures are fickle, as the not-so distant history of the Cove Point Plant proves. Created during the oil crisis of the mid 1970s, Cove Point was shut down as a shipping terminal in only two years as oil prices stabilized.

That lesson in history puts the new study in perspective: It’s talking projections, not promises.

Conducted by a Towson University economic research institute, the study is part of the economic impact package Dominion will submit to the Federal Energy Commission, which has still to approve much of the expansion.

The research institute, called RESI, anticipated gaining those millions of dollars from three sources: jobs, tax revenues and “increased economic activity.”

Nearly 400 new jobs would come to Calvert, according to the study. Most of the jobs — 244 — would seed the county with short-term growth, accounting for $7.9 million in payroll annually during the four years of construction.

Once the plant is up to capacity, 148 longer term jobs would stabilize the wealth, accounting for $5.2 million annually for as long as the expanded terminal and pipeline are up and running.

Tax benefits to the financially strapped county and to the state are forecast at $1.2 million in tax revenues for each year of construction, rising to $16.7 million for each year the expanded plant and pipeline operate.

In the third category, regional economic output would grow by $18.3 million each year of construction and $42.8 million annually, once expanded operations begin, the study’s mathematicians projected.

“This isn’t one of those projects that, by the time [the county] builds roads, sewage and water, do not bring in in any money,” Dominion spokesman Dan Donovan told Bay Weekly.

Along with the millions of dollars it projects, Dominion Cove Point’s expansion will have other impacts on Calvert.

photo by Coast Guardman PA3 Donnie Brzuska
It will, in essence, make the little, largely non-industrial county Energy Central for trade in a commodity the surrounding area may never use. Most of the gas that travels through Dominion’s Calvert port and pipeline is bought by utilities in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast.

Dominion Cove Point is already the biggest of the United States’ four LNG facilities; doubling will make it a giant, able to fuel the Eastern Seaboard as much as two billion cubic feet of gas a day.

Giant-sizing at Dominion means not 70 or so, but some 150 LNG tankers, each 800 to 900 feet, steaming up Chesapeake Bay every year. Each will turn left about the time it sees the Cove Point Lighthouse and head in to dock a mile and quarter from Calvert’s shores — within short miles of Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.
  • Dominion’s expansion means doubling the Coast Guard presence to escort the larger fleet.

  • It means raising the gallons of gas imported from Trinidad — and potentially Algeria, Nigeria, Norway or islands in the Bering Sea — to as high as 6.24 billion gallons a year

  • It means adding a new fifth holding tank that, at some 36 million gallons capacity, will dwarf its four sisters and add a new landmark on shore. That tank will be complete by January, 2005. By 2008, more new tanks will be built to expand storage capacity by an additional 6.4 billion cubic feet for a total of 14 billion cubic feet.

  • It means hundreds of tons more air pollutants discharged into Calvert County as new gas heaters and boilers convert the liquefied fuel back to gas and pump it.

  • It means sistering a new pipeline alongside the 87-mile line that runs from the Calvert terminal to connect with three major interstate pipelines in northern Virginia, thence to its faraway buyers.

All those changes, as well as the projected economic growth, will impact Calvert, and not all might be positive.

photo by Sandra Martin
A 25-foot-wide mowed path marks the trail of the pipeline, which snakes its way across Phyllis Johnson’s land on its way to the Patuxent River and beyond.
After 9/11, when Dominion’s permit to reopen the long-closed plant was reissued, terrorism dominated fears of what liquefied natural gas transport could mean. Nowadays, it’s the pipeline that hits closest to home for Calvert Countains along its path. According to Dominion, a new pipeline will “parallel an existing line through Calvert, Prince George’s and Charles counties.”

Bay Weekly followed the line, marked by yellow PCV standpipes, to the home of retired school teacher and counselor Phyllis Johnson. Johnson lives on Broomes Island Road, a quarter of the way up and across the county from Cove Point. From her hayfields, the 25-foot-wide mowed path snakes its way to the Patuxent River and slips under water.

For landowners like Johnson, Dominion’s new pipeline would require a double-size easement, across her fields and through her nearest neighbor’s garden and garage before bisecting the next neighbor, a horse farm.

“I already have one of those 36-inch pipes, and another’s coming through. I’m not happy because it’s no benefit to me,” Johnson said. Eleven pages of pipeline accidents she’s found listed with the National Transportation Safety Board add to her worries.

Johnson, who traces her ancestors in Calvert back to 1658, is already feeling the impact of Dominion Cove Point’s expansion. It’s knocking at her door, promising — not projecting — eminent domain. That means the pipeline is hers — whether she wants it or not.

“This is too close to people’s lives,” Johnson said. “When it’s at your doorstep, it’s an endangerment.”

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Last updated May 20, 2004 @ 12:47am.