State’s move to gas may undercut local foresters
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland forestry leaders are asking Gov. Larry Hogan for help after learning recently about a state plan to shut down an Eastern Shore prison’s wood-burning power plant and switch it to natural gas.
Two forestry associations have been lobbying the governor to build a replacement wood-burning plant elsewhere in Maryland before it shuts down the system at Eastern Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Somerset County.
The state is in the process of approving a natural gas pipeline to the Westover prison, part of a larger effort to bring natural gas to Somerset, one of three remaining Maryland counties without gas service.
The prison consumes about 55,000 tons of wood chips each year, about a third of the Shore’s total wood chip production. The loss of its business would be a serious blow, said Bill Miles, executive director of the Association of Forest Industries Inc., which represents saw mills and other industry interests in Maryland.
“We’re not opposing the gas line, but if you do it, you’ve got to have an alternative project,” he said. “You can’t just dry us up like that.”
Miles and the Maryland Forests Association, which represents landowners and other forestry advocates, held a luncheon with lawmakers in Annapolis on Feb. 7 in part to advocate for the new facility. It’s unclear when the state plans to finally shut down the prison’s wood-burning plant, but it could be within two to three years, Miles said.
“We are lobbying the administration to come up with a project that they can fast-track,” he said. “I’m convinced that they are supportive.”
Shareese Churchill, Hogan’s press secretary, could not be reached for comment.
If the state doesn’t build a replacement wood biomass-burning system at a public facility elsewhere, the Shore could lose 50 jobs and about $7 million in yearly economic activity, according to literature given to lawmakers at the meeting. That includes about $300,000 in payments to landowners whose forests are harvested for the chips.
“We’re against taking jobs away from the industry, jobs that are here now and viable and serve the rural community,” said Beth Hill, executive director of the Maryland Forests Association.
Two steam boilers fueled by the chips have powered the prison — the state’s only wood biomass-powered public facility — since 1987. The prison contracts with Eastern Shore Forest Products in Salisbury to provide the chips.
That contract helps “thin” about 1,000 acres of forestland across the region each year, the forestry associations said. The company harvests small-diameter trees with minimal commercial value to shred them into chips, thinning the forest and allowing remaining trees to grow faster, larger and more valuable for use as hardwood.
That process provides income for landowners and keeps forests from being developed, Hill said — an important point for a state that leans on its remaining 2.6 million acres of forestland to help filter excess nutrients and maintain water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
Forests absorb carbon dioxide, making their management and use as fuel environmentally friendly, Miles said, and the state already recognizes trees as a renewable energy source. The price of wood chips on the Shore is cheaper and more stable than natural gas, he said, and the money from forestry production stays local.
“When you purchase gas, a lot of that money goes outside the state, whereas when you purchase wood, that money stays within the state,” he said.
Eastern Shore Forest Products employs about 15 people on a $700,000 payroll to satisfy the prison contract, said Joe Hinson, a consultant with the company.
“That would go away immediately,” he said, if the prison shuts down its wood-burning plant. “It’s a little bit baffling to me that the state would even consider this.”
The plant’s shutdown would chip away at the industry’s infrastructure, to say nothing of what it would do to his company, he said.
“I’m not saying our business would go away if that went away, but a significant part of it would,” Hinson said.
The Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-state nonprofit dedicated to environmental improvement projects, is overseeing the prison pipeline proposal. The agency is currently reviewing its sole bid, received in the fall, from Chesapeake Utilities, a Dover, Del., company that distributes gas to more than 60,000 customers in Delaware and Maryland, said Craig Renner, an agency spokesperson.
Renner declined to comment further, but Miles said he understood why the agency wants to remove the 33-year-old wood-burning system.
“It’s a dinosaur,” he said.
The prison pipeline project would be part of a larger $37 million expansion to Chesapeake Utilities’ existing pipeline network, which stretches from Pennsylvania into Delaware and Salisbury. The network is operated by Eastern Shore Natural Gas Co., a subsidiary.
Chesapeake Utilities is still waiting for the Maryland Environmental Service’s verdict on their bid, said Justin Mulcahy, a company spokesperson.
“In the meantime, we remain focused on finding ways to provide the underserved areas on the (Delmarva) Peninsula with low cost, environmentally beneficial energy solutions,” he said in an e-mail.
The Hogan administration has created a work group to identify potential sites for a new, state-of-the-art wood biomass-burning system elsewhere in the state, Miles said.
Ideally, he said, that project would show the state how beneficial woody biomass can be as fuel source. Perhaps additional plants could be built.
“We can show you how good wood is to produce energy,” he said. “Fingers are crossed. We hope it works out.”