CALVERT COUNTY, Md. — Mickey Shymansky is not the kind of guy who usually gives politicians what for. But on Tuesday, April 29, he approached the microphone at a government meeting in Prince Frederick, Maryland, and introduced himself: a captain in the District of Columbia Fire Department just 45 miles up the road, with a bachelor’s degree in fire science and 30 years of experience. His black tie had a red fire truck on it — the white ladder reached almost to the knot.
“Mrs. Shaw,” he said to one of the five county commissioners before him, “I know that you have a son with the Washington, D.C., fire department. And I’m sure you love the fact that he comes home safely at the end of a shift."
Four weeks earlier, an explosion at a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Plymouth, Washington, had punctured a storage tank, forcing an evacuation in a 2-mile radius. From the front steps of the southern Calvert County home where 46-year-old Shymansky lives with his wife, Jennifer, and four children, he can see one of seven LNG storage tanks owned by Virginia-based Dominion Resources. The plant, on the coast of the Chesapeake Bay, was built to import LNG. Now Dominion wants to begin exporting LNG, and the commissioners support the company’s plans to build a power plant and other infrastructure to purify natural gas, cool it to the 260 degrees below zero needed to liquefy it, and ship it overseas.
Shymansky opposes the expansion. He described terrifying scenarios that he says an explosion at the plant could create — homes destroyed, residents suffocating to death. “I would be devastated,” he concluded, “if my family dies during a gas incident while I’m at work protecting the nation’s capital.”
The LNG plant Shymansky is protesting may be just several hundred yards from his home, but the forces that drew him to a small-town county commissioners’ meeting extend halfway across the globe. The United States, long an importer of natural gas, could become one of the world’s largest exporters.
For years, Cove Point imported LNG. Now it wants to build a facility to cool gas from the United States and ship it overseas.Matt Houston / AP
Imports to Dominion’s Cove Point LNG plant have dropped 90 percent in the past seven years as advances in hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, have boosted domestic production of natural gas. Dominion received conditional approval from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) last September to start exporting LNG, and the company has already inked contracts in Japan and India, where importers are willing to pay three to four times more than Americans for natural gas. (The DOE must approve facilities hoping to export to these and other countries that lack free-trade agreements, or FTAs, with the United States.)
Federal regulators have received 31 applications from companies hoping to export natural gas to non-FTA countries. One site in Louisiana has gone through all the hoops and has begun construction; it expects to begin exporting in two or three years. Six others, including Cove Point, which have received “conditional” approval, just need an environmental review and a green light from the DOE before building.
The LNG export train, it would seem, is pulling out of the station. Mickey Shymansky’s concern about safety isn't the only issue that could derail it; Cove Point in particular has attracted national attention. The Sierra Club and 13 other environmental advocacy groups wrote a letter to President Obama in March, urging a more thorough environmental review.
Chesapeake Climate Action Network founder Mike Tidwell says exports from Cove Point would create more demand for natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation — a hotbed for fracking underneath West Virginia and several other nearby states — and immediately make the site Maryland’s biggest greenhouse gas polluter. “You have to pipe it, compress it, send it all the way from wherever,” Tidwell says. “Then in Cove Point they have to build a full-scale power plant to liquefy the gas, then tankers burn fossil fuels as they transport it all the way to Asia, then it’s regassed, and it’s lit on fire for energy use for downtown Tokyo and New Delhi.”
Critics say LNG exports would result in more fracking to meet the extra demand, leading to more leaks of methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — and potentially polluting the air and drinking water of residents near drilling sites. (Dominion’s website notes that the company doesn’t control the source of the gas they hope to export; it could be piped in, they say, “from virtually anywhere in the United States,” fracked or not.) A peer-reviewed study released in April found that protocols currently in place to monitor fracking wells “are inadequate to ensure safety,” and the state of Maryland itself won’t decide whether to allow fracking until a commission created by Gov. Martin O’Malley releases its findings in August.