Maryland inches closer to decision time on hydraulic fracturing

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that an executive order by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) bars the state from issuing drilling permits until a safety study is completed next year. The study is not due until 2014, and the state may issue permits before that time if drilling is otherwise proved to be safe.This article also incorrectly said that O’Malley assessed a fee of $5 per acre on land that oil and gas companies leased from homeowners to pay for an advisory commission. The fee was proposed in legislation that was voted down. This version has been updated.


The Chesapeake Energy oil rig drllls in Carroll County, Ohio. As states in the mid-Atlantic region lined up for the jobs and tax revenue that would come with drilling deep into the shale to release gas, Maryland held back, but there are signs that the state’s resolve is fading. (Gus Chan Gus Chan/The Plain Dealer)
December 8, 2012

As states in the Mid-Atlantic lined up for the jobs and tax revenue that would come with drilling deep into the shale to release gas, Maryland held back.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and other state officials said no thanks, wary that poisonous chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing could contaminate groundwater in rural areas where it matters most.

But there are signs that Maryland’s resolve is weakening. Time is slowly running out on a de facto drilling moratorium imposed by O’Malley, who issued an executive order last year that barred the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) from approving drilling permits until a scientific study costing $1.5 million could be completed. The state did not fund the study, and the deadline for completing it is 2014; the state may issue permits before 2014 if drilling is otherwise proved to be safe.

In a bid to keep the moratorium in place, opponents of fracturing — widely known as fracking — planned to meet this weekend in Baltimore to brainstorm on how to craft legislation to extend the deadline and fund the study on whether drilling is safe.

“What we’re hoping for with this session is a very strong shot across the bow,” said Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery County), who has sponsored numerous pieces of anti-drilling legislation. “No studies, no fracking. Until these studies are undertaken, there will be no drilling in Maryland.”

But in the past legislative session, the American Petroleum Institute thwarted a state Senate bill that sought to place a fee on the oil and gas industry for the study, which would investigate the quality of Maryland’s underground water in Garrett County, where the state’s Marcellus Shale is most abundant, and examine whether chemicals used in fracking would taint it.

Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland State Petroleum Council, a division of the petroleum institute, said the group favors a study but fought having to fund it.

“Tell me another example where a business wants to come into Maryland and has to pay for a study to do it,” Cobbs said. “When you’re working with people who don’t want to compromise, that’s the end result.”

Fracking in the Marcellus Shale, a 380 million-year-old layer of rock that runs from Ohio to Virginia, trapping an estimated 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, has yielded tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue for Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Maryland residents who support drilling, particularly those who leased property and sold mineral rights in Garrett County, say the governor’s moratorium and Mizeur’s legislation amounts to a “war against rural Maryland” that robs farmers of much-needed cash they could earn from royalties when gas is extracted.

Environmental activists and rural owners who filed lawsuits against gas companies say the damage is not worth the payout.

The typical hydraulic fracturing well is drilled vertically for up to 5,000 feet, then horizontally for about a mile. Up to 7 million gallons of water mixed with chemicals, including radium, a radioactive element, is fired down the well. Millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater bubbles back up before it’s hauled away for treatment.

And trucks that deliver up to 7 million gallons of water needed to frack a single well, along with chemicals, pound small rural roads and irritate homeowners with a steady grunt of noise. The group Clean Water Action estimated that 2 million gallons at a single well requires 549 tanker truck trips.

At this point, the arguments for and against fracking seem purely academic. After a drilling boom in about a dozen states, the price of natural gas has fallen, making it questionable whether it is worth the millions of dollars needed to recover it.

A $5 per acre fee on land that oil and gas companies leased from homeowners to pay for a commission to study drilling impacts was proposed in legislation, but it was voted down. At the time, natural gas exploration was still booming, and at least two companies were seeking permits. But the companies pulled out of the lease contracts, taking away the funding.

The state environment department did manage to produce one study, published last year in December, with seven recommendations on how to draft a policy to protect landowners from possible contamination, said Brigid Kenney, a senior policy adviser for MDE who focuses on the Marcellus.

A second report on best practices for shale drilling in five states is nearly completed, Kenney said, and a third report on the positive and negative impacts of drilling in the shale is expected in August.

The first study was pulled together by MDE staff, and the second is being performed by a University of Maryland Center for Environment Science professor under a $183,000 contract.

“To say the study hasn’t gotten underway would be inaccurate,” Kenney said.

But to say that those studies are what O’Malley intended would also be inaccurate, said Mike Tidwell, director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, one of several environmental activist organizations that sponsored Saturday’s conference.

“It’s my understanding that they’re doing something like a literature review of what others have said about fracking in other states. We understood the order was to have serious studies that are Maryland-specific.

“I think the governor assumed that by 2013 this would have been funded, and this would’ve been done,” Tidwell said.

In Garrett County, where residents lost potential income when oil companies tired of Maryland’s delays and took their operations elsewhere, Commissioner Jim Raley (R) said everyone should put aside their differences and negotiate.

“I believe the analysis should be done,” Raley said. “It really comes down to the issue of fracking, can it be done in a safe and prudent manner. But if the state can benefit from it, the industry can benefit, and the county can benefit, maybe . . . we each should fund it.”

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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