Natural gas is often hailed as the most promising energy source to feed America’s power-hungry future: cleaner than coal and oil, and free of the fears surrounding nuclear power. And sitting atop one of the largest gas reserves in the world, Maryland is one of several Chesapeake Bay region states that stand to profit handsomely.
But the process of drilling for the “clean fuel” is now embattled, as the Maryland General Assembly recently sought to do what no other state in the region has done. Before a single well has been drilled, it moved to ban the practice, boldly stepping into the center of a heated conflict.
A map showing the vast shale gas reserves, known as the Marcellus Shale Formation, across the United States.
In a vote that reflects growing national concern over the practice known as hydraulic fracturing, state lawmakers in the House on Wednesday passed a bill that would essentially place a moratorium on drilling until the Maryland Department of the Environment completes a two-year study to determine whether it endangers drinking water and public health, as some environmentalists in nearby states that allow drilling charge.
“We’re not going to be like other states that drilled first and asked questions later,” said Maryland Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), who drafted and sponsored the legislation. “We understand that second chances are expensive, so we should slow down and take the time to do this right the first time.”
The gas has been entombed for about 380 million years in a thick layer of rock called the Marcellus Shale, which covers 95,000 square miles from Ohio to Virginia. But the industry just recently discovered an economical way to get at it: a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, using blasts of water mixed with chemicals to fracture the shale and release the gas.
It’s a difficult and expensive way to get at the hydrocarbons, but the Marcellus Shale formation is now thought to hold as much as 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — with about 50 trillion cubic feet already recoverable using current technologies. Drilling could potentially bring in billions of dollars in tax revenue and jobs, along with lease payments and gas royalties from companies to property owners.
But environmentalists say fracking is a dirty business, and some government officials have listened.
The state of New York imposed a moratorium on new drilling permits in December after environmentalists raised concerns about the threat to drinking water. Drilling has launched an economic boom in Pennsylvania, but energy companies there have been hit with numerous citations for environmental violations and lawsuits from residents claiming that drilling fouled their water.
And U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said this month that he is considering federal regulations to ensure that the drilling does not damage waterways. Speaking earlier this month to the House Natural Resources Committee, Salazar said: “We are going to have a huge backlash . . . from the American public if we continue to inject chemicals and fluids into the ground without people knowing what it is that’s being injected.”