It was shaping up to be the rarest of energy projects: a proposed natural gas pipeline ready to be built through three Southern Maryland counties without serious opposition from either regulators or environmental groups.

But that was before a St. Leonard tree farmer named George ‘Stovy’ Brown and a group of his neighbors began asking questions about the pipeline’s proposed route and its impact on Calvert County’s environment and farmland.

“It’s time to step back and look at the total impact of what we’re doing,” Brown says when asked about his personal stake in the project. “If we don’t have people stepping back and saying ‘we’re getting nibbled to death by a duck’, each nibble might be small, but we’re still dead. This may be one nibble, but it’s a major one.”

The proposal by Dominion Resources, Inc., a Richmond-based utility and energy company, would add a parallel line to the company’s existing Southern Maryland pipeline by 2008, enabling it to transport enough natural gas per day to meet the energy needs of 6.1 million homes, almost doubling its current capacity.

The current 48-mile, buried pipeline, which has been in use since 1978, runs from Dominion’s Cove Point liquid natural gas terminal in southern Calvert County, through part of southern Prince George’s County, to Marshall Hall, on the east bank of the Potomac River in Charles County.

Many Calvert residents and politicians agree that the expansion is vital to the distribution of natural gas to surrounding states. Its critics are mainly concerned with the new pipeline’s proposed route.

“The citizens of Calvert County are rightfully concerned,” Senator Roy P. Dyson, D – Southern Maryland, wrote in a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “I hear that the majority is not opposed to the pipeline; they are opposed to Dominion’s proposed route.”

Unusually, neither environmental groups nor regulatory agencies are raising major concerns about the proposed expansion.

Natural gas is a much cleaner-burning fuel than coal, the leading source of power generation in Maryland. Partially because of this, environmental groups are not strongly opposing the project.

“Coal is an environmental disaster for all Marylanders,” Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said. “With natural gas you don’t have mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide problems.”

“This is a project that we think is good for the environment,” Dominion spokesman Daniel Donovan said. “And it will bring in the environmentally-preferable energy source, natural gas.”

Under the company’s proposal, two sections of the new pipeline will deviate from its current route in Calvert County, thereby disturbing, according to FERC documents, 4.9 miles of the county’s virgin land.

That’s a number Brown refused to accept without putting up a fight, so in August 2004, he co-founded a Calvert County community group called Concerned About Pipeline Expansion, which now has 270 county residents on its mailing list.

“What about the rural character of Calvert County?” Brown asked. “How many times can you carve up (a county) that’s eight miles wide?”

He and C.A.P.E. want to protect the virgin land, much of which is densely forested. The forests the pipeline would run through are cool and dim because the canopy keeps out most sunlight, and their ferns and mosses are