RANSON — While a decision by Maryland officials to withhold permission to lay a natural gas pipeline under the Potomac River won’t affect service to the Rockwool insulation facility that’s now under construction, the ruling could impact other potential customers, says Jefferson County Development Authority chief Nic Diehl.
The Maryland Board of Public Works voted unanimously last week to deny a 50-foot easement request by TransCanada Corp. to run an 8-inch pipeline under the Potomac and the Western Maryland Rail Trail near Hancock, Md.
Diehl said the allowance would have let Mountaineer Gas Co. extend gas service to homes and other businesses throughout the Eastern Panhandle, including Jefferson County, but it won’t impact Rockwool.
“They’ve already promised Rockwool natural gas based on their calculations about existing capacity,” Diehl said of Mountaineer officials. “That was done over a year ago.”
Diehl said Mountaineer also is looking to access the additional TransCanada pipeline from Pennsylvania as a backup gas source for its current customers.
Environmental advocacy groups celebrated the decision by the Maryland Board of Public Works to block TransCanada from laying the pipeline under the Potomac River.
For several months, environmental groups have complained that a leak or rupture under the river would threaten the area’s drinking water. They also opposed the pipeline for conveying fracked natural gas.
Tracy Cannon, a leader with the Eastern Panhandle Protectors, attended last week’s Board of Public Works meeting with about 40 residents from West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia.
“If the Maryland part of the pipeline is never built, then there will never be gas to supply the West Virginia part of the pipeline. Pipelines without gas cannot explode,” Cannon said in a statement. “May this be the first of many dominoes to fall. Let’s call for a nationwide moratorium on these hazardous pipelines. Fossil fuel infrastructure is not the direction we want to go in if we want to keep existing as a species.”
The pipeline was also opposed by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Potomac Riverkeeper Network and the Sierra Club.
Jefferson County Vision, a local citizens group opposing the Rockwool factory, also praised the Board of Public Works’ decision as a step toward stopping the factory and other future industrial development in Jefferson County and the surrounding region. The group noted that the Rockwool insulation plant would use burn gas and coal as part of its insulation manufacturing process.
“The Potomac Pipeline isn’t about natural gas at all — it is about bringing new coal-powered industrial development to the Shenandoah Valley,” JCV said in a statement.
West Virginia Public Service Commission spokeswoman Susan Small referred questions about Mountaineer’s service capacity to the company. Mountaineer officials did not return phone calls for comment on the impact of the unexpected decision by Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp. However, Moses Skaff, a spokesman for Mountaineer, has said in the past the utility has been working with Jefferson officials since at least 2014 to bring gas service to Jefferson County.
Currently, Mountaineer delivers gas to about 6,000 businesses, hospitals, schools and homes in Berkeley County from a single pipeline from Virginia. Except for one or two businesses operating near the Berkeley County border, Jefferson County households and business have no access to natural gas service.
Rockwool officials have said they have all the utility service agreements to move forward with all phases of the 460,000-square-foot factory’s construction off Charles Town Road. The company released this statement following the Maryland decision: “As a new customer, we have an ongoing dialogue with Mountaineer Gas, both before and after the Maryland Board of Public Works vote. We remain confident they will be able to meet our needs when the new facility is up and running.”
Last month, the WVPSC approved a five-year plan for the Charleston-based gas company to spend $16.5 million to expand and enhance its gas service in Jefferson and Berkeley counties.
In a prepared statement, TransCanada pointed out that the pipeline under the Potomac was studied for nearly two years and approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department Natural Resources. “This extensive process has confirmed that through proper design and construction our project can be completed in an environmentally responsible and safe manner,” the company’s statement reads. “We will consider our options over the coming days to keep this project on track and construct in a safe and environmentally conscious manner.”
TransCanada currently operates 16 gas lines under the Potomac from Maryland, the company reported. Those pipelines cross the river in Allegany, Garrett and Montgomery counties.
Diehl said when he was a West Virginia Department of Commerce employee, he worked with Mountaineer to study the feasibility of bringing gas service to Jefferson County. That review showed the importance of obtaining a reliable secondary gas source if service was to expand considerably in the Eastern Panhandle, he said.
Diehl said the service review also uncovered other options or routes for TransCanada to pursue that would deliver the extra gas to the Eastern Panhandle. Federal agencies could possibly intervene, he said.
Natural gas is typically a cleaner, less costly source of energy than electric power plants, particularly for a larger manufacturing facility, Diehl said.
“So any industrial or large building is going to want natural gas,” he said. “It gets more expensive when you’re talking about bringing it to your house.”
The Rockwool factory will use both coal and natural gas as part of its stone wool production process, said Michael Zarin, a company spokesman. The factory will use milled coal as a primary fuel to melt the rock material used to produce mineral wool insulation. Natural gas will be the primary fuel used for the factory’s stone wool curing process.