Wednesday, May 21, 2008
How is a liquefied natural gas terminal like a low-cost housing project? Both are LULUs -– locally unwanted land uses. But both are also necessary for the wider community –- the metro area (at least) in the case of the housing project, and the nation, in the case of the LNG terminal. And sometimes it takes the courts to vindicate the greater public interest over local desires. This is my assessment of the decision this week of a federal appellate court that Maryland authorities could not use their coastal management law to stop an LNG terminal from being built outside Baltimore. (The case is AES Sparrow Point LNG, LLC v. Smith (U.S. Ct. App. 4th Cir. May 19, 2008)).
There was once a time in which Maryland and its leaders would have cheered any plan to bring jobs and industry to Sparrows Point, just east of Baltimore, which was once the site of America’s largest steel mill. But times have changed, and a plan to built an LNG terminal, which would transfer natural gas from ships to a pipeline to Pennsylvania, is no longer supported by a majority of citizens in Baltimore County. Among many reasons is that the terminal would pose a small but real risk of a colossal disaster. Accordingly, Baltimore County tried to use its right to regulate coastal development, under the Coastal Zone Management Act, to prohibit the terminal.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which sits in Baltimore, held that the County action did not overcome the federal Natural Gas Act, which gives the primary power to approve an LNG plan to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. If the federal authorities did not hold such authority, local interests might make it difficult to build any new natural gas project in the United States, with adverse repercussions to Americans nationwide who devour natural gas and howl about high fuel prices.
Does this system mean that environmental and local safety concerns don’t get enough attention? Yes. But some land use decisions are too important to be left solely to local government. I believe so with regard to low-cost housing projects, and with regard to liquefied natural gas terminals …