In its decision, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded that the project, as approved with conditions, would minimize potential adverse impacts on landowners and the environment.
FERC has approved three other LNG export projects, but this is the first one on the East Coast. The others are in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We are pleased to receive this final approval that allows us to start constructing this important project that offers significant economic, environmental and geopolitical benefits," said Diane Leopold, president of Richmond, Virginia-based Dominion Energy. She added that the company was committed to constructing a safe, secure, environmentally compatible and reliable export facility.
Republicans in Congress have been pushing the administration to approve LNG exports — casting that effort in recent months as a way to help beleaguered Ukraine by lessening European dependence on Russian gas supplies.
FERC's ruling adopted staff recommendations made in an environmental assessment, requiring Dominion to meet 79 conditions aimed at mitigating negative environmental impacts. That assessment, issued this spring, concluded the project would have "no significant impact" on the environment
But several environmental groups opposed the project, citing, among other things, concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from fracking, piping, processing, shipping and eventually burning the liquefied natural gas. They had pushed unsuccessfully for a more exhaustive federal review called an environmental impact statement.
"FERC's decision to approve Cove Point is the result of a biased review process rigged in favor of approving gas industry projects no matter how great the environmental and safety concerns," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "FERC refused to even require an environmental impact statement for this $3.8 billion facility right on the bay. We intend to challenge this ruling all the way to the courts if necessary. For the safety of Marylanders and for people across our region facing new fracking wells and pipelines, we will continue to fight this project until it is stopped."
In its decision, FERC said that for impacts related to climate change, the environmental assessment explained that there is "no standard methodology to determine how a project's incremental contribution to GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions would result in physical effects on the environment, either locally or globally."
The ruling is the last major regulatory hurdle for Dominion's project, although the company must review and accept the order. Following that, Dominion said it expects to file an implementation plan describing how it will comply with FERC's conditions and seek a notice to proceed from the agency.
Dominion hopes to begin its export operations in 2017. It envisions that 85 ships would leave from its terminal each year, carrying natural gas that has been cooled to liquid at minus 260 degrees F. The gas is shipped in liquid form for ease of transport. Dominion plans to ship the liquefied natural gas to Japan and India, where gas prices are higher than in the U.S.
Monday's ruling comes as energy companies seek to take advantage of a boom in natural gas fueled by hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.