In high school, my family and I would frequently hop in our car and drive up to aptly named Riley’s Lock in Poolesville, Maryland, for a day of fishing on the Potomac River. We’d park in the lot for the C&O Canal bike trail and launch our little aluminum 1964 Sears jon boat, which, if you’re having trouble picturing it, looks essentially like a boxy canoe, only with more leaks and far less visual aesthetic.
For all its holes, cobwebs, and other quirks, that little 55-year old boat is responsible for some of my favorite memories with my family, from fishing the Potomac to entirely rebuilding it to celebrate the Washington Nationals for last year’s MLB All-Star Game. In its lifetime, the boat has also seen a dramatic series of changes in the Potomac River, including the river’s evolution from one of the most endangered and polluted in the nation to its current state as an increasingly healthy and safe ecosystem. And as our old, leaky boat pushes toward 60 years on the water, I’m hoping to continue to see improvements in the river whenever we take it out.
Despite the progress made in cleaning up the Potomac, as well as the momentum across Maryland in transitioning to clean, non-polluting energy sources, there is still plenty of work to be done to ensure the state becomes the leader in clean energy and environmental conservation it has set out to be. Two years ago, for instance, a natural gas company called Columbia Gas, a subsidiary of TransCanada, proposed a new natural gas pipeline in the northwest corner of Maryland that would run under the Potomac, carrying gas from Pennsylvania to the north through to the eastern panhandle of West Virginia to the south. The pipeline would be far from the first to run under the river — there are currently 12 gas pipelines running below it — but it would represent a step backward for a state that has made considerable progress on renewable energy and environmental protection.
Earlier this year, Governor Larry Hogan allowed the Clean Energy Jobs Act to become law in Maryland. The new legislation will, among other things, accelerate the state’s progress towards becoming powered entirely by renewable energy, with a new interim goal to run on at least 50% renewable power by 2030. This landmark legislation passed the statehouse with bipartisan support. The new law is a huge step forward for the state and one that many Marylanders, including myself, are very excited about. However, it also overshadowed a less exciting piece of energy news from just several days before: Columbia Gas is suing Maryland after Hogan and others blocked development of the Potomac Pipeline project earlier this year.
The news is hardly surprising, but still a painful reminder of the “two steps forward, one step back” pattern in Maryland and other states’ environmental and energy transformations. Allowing a new gas pipeline to run through the state, even if only to connect existing pipelines in West Virginia and Pennsylvania and not to power Maryland homes and businesses, would betray the recent work to combat climate change that was accomplished in Annapolis by the General Assembly. Additionally, for all its required environmental protection components, the pipeline will still threaten the ecosystem of the majority of the Potomac River, from Hancock to Shepherdstown to Harpers Ferry, all the way past D.C. to the Chesapeake Bay.
I am encouraged by the work that our state politicians, environmental organizations, and citizen activists have done thus far to prevent increased development of fossil fuel infrastructure in our state. However, the Columbia Gas case proves there is still work to be done to ensure that the clean energy future that is within Maryland’s grasp becomes reality. Victories such as the Clean Energy Jobs Act should be celebrated, but they must also build momentum and not illicit complacency.
Roughly 18 miles up the Potomac from Riley’s Lock is Dickerson Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant that went on line just a few years before our aging boat was built in the 1960s. The boat and the plant are both relics at this point in their respective lifetimes, and sooner or later I know we’ll have to haul our ragtag vessel from the river for the last time. And while I’m in no hurry to retire our beloved boat, it is past time for the other relic on the river—and other fossil fuel projects like the Potomac Pipeline—to stop production and development and make room for Maryland’s new clean energy future.