Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) issued an executive order Monday calling for a study of drilling for natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Western Maryland -- a move that pleased lawmakers who unsuccessfully sought during the recent legislative session to put a two-year moratorium on the controversial process.

“While we are mindful of the potential economic and energy benefits that could arise from the production of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale reserves in Maryland, we are also very concerned about an array of issues that have been raised regarding the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract this fuel,” O’Malley said in a statement. “Our decisions must be guided by scientific knowledge about the effects of this type of drilling to ensure that we protect public safety and health, groundwater, surface water, and the rural lifestyle and natural resources in Maryland.”

As our colleague Darryl Fears reported during the session, the natural gas at issue 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. The energy 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.

While drilling could provide billions in tax revenue and jobs, environmentalists have warned of potential hazards. A bill calling for a moratorium passed the House of Delegates but stalled in the Senate this year.

On Monday, Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), the lead sponsor of the House bill, called O’Malley’s study “well-timed.”

“Our first priority should be safeguarding residents, farms, drinking water, trout streams, wildlife, and forests, and the state should continue to put long-term protections ahead of short-term profits,” Mizeur said.

O’Malley’s executive order establishes a commission and calls for it to conduct a three-part study. The first part is due by the end of the year, in advance of next year’s legislative session. The final part is not due until 2014.