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Md. fracking regulations include enhanced buffers around wells

Workers tap into Marcellus natural gas at an active hydraulic fracturing drilling operation outside of Wellsboro, Pa. (Brett Carlsen/for The Washington Post)

Maryland’s long-awaited fracking regulations would ban drilling in three watersheds in Western Maryland and require extensive safeguards around drilling sites, protections that Secretary of the Environment Ben H. Grumbles called “the most stringent” in the country.

The proposed regulations, which the state unveiled Monday, also would allow fracking closer to homes and private wells than what was proposed by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) before the legislature imposed a moratorium on the controversial gas-extraction practice that is set to expire in October 2017.

Maryland’s Department of the Environment is calling for four layers of steel casing and cement around fracking wells to prevent water, gas and other fluids from migrating to other areas, and for the monitoring of surface water and groundwater before and after drilling begins.

Grumbles said the plans are “so comprehensive and so protective that the buffers we’re providing for are ample.”

O’Malley ready to allow fracking, with safeguards

Environmentalists and fracking opponents in the state legislature say they will try again next year to prohibit the practice altogether, while the moratorium is still in place. The technique, officially called hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping water, sand and chemicals deep into the ground to break up rock and release natural gas. It is permitted in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Supporters, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), say fracking can be done safely while providing economic benefits for Western Maryland and new revenue for the state.

Opponents cite concerns about groundwater contamination, air pollution and earthquakes, and say no safeguards can adequately protect the public and the environment.

“These regulations show that Governor Hogan and his administration clearly have the best interest of the oil and gas industry in mind, not the health and safety of Maryland residents,” said Thomas Meyer, an organizer with Food and Water Watch. “The only appropriate response from the Maryland General Assembly to these disastrous regulations is a statewide ban on fracking.”

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) said he plans to introduce such legislation early next year, similar to a bill he sponsored in 2014.

“If at some point in the future it is absolutely foolproof safe, then we can have another discussion,” Zirkin said. “But as of 2016, multiple states have done this, and all of them have seen bad results.”

Scientists say chemicals from fracking can taint nearby water sources

Geologist David Vanko, who is dean of Towson University’s Fisher College of Science and Mathematics and spent four years leading an O’Malley-appointed fracking commission, said the newly proposed regulations are “some of strictest, if not the strictest” in the nation.

“The important thing is that Maryland is starting out with well-thought-out regulations, whereas some neighboring states began with inadequate regulations and have been backpedaling ever since,” he said.

However, Vanko said some of the rules fall short of the commission’s recommendations, including by not requiring air-quality monitoring before and after drilling begins.

“I really feel you want to have air-quality data to convince people nearby that they’re not being exposed to volatile organic compounds and silicate dust,” he said.

Vanko applauded a requirement for drillers to buy insurance for personal injury, property damage and environmental pollution, but he said the state should couple that mandate with a gas-extraction tax that would provide revenue for a fund to pay for accidents.

See the proposed fracking regulations

“The tax would fund a larger pot of money that could be used for bigger issues, such as when there are multiple companies and you can’t tell who is responsible, or if the companies are out of business,” Vanko said.

The proposed regulations would require drillers to disclose the chemicals they use for fracking — something the industry has fought, on the grounds that revealing the information would expose trade secrets.

State environmental officials sent the rules to the legislature’s regulatory-review committee Monday, too late to meet an Oct. 1 legislative deadline for finalizing the regulations.

The process, which officials say they expect to complete by year’s end, includes a 30-day public comment period and a possible hearing before the committee, among other steps.

Officials said the delay was necessary to thoroughly consider rules in place in other states and the concerns of citizens and stakeholders.

“It was time well spent for us to review what’s working, what are the key safeguards and how to improve upon those safeguards,” Grumbles said.

A Goucher College poll released Monday found that Marylanders are divided over hydraulic fracturing. Among the 76 percent of respondents who said they have heard about the practice, 43 percent said they would support a statewide ban, while 32 percent said they would oppose it.