Correction: Correction: Earlier versions of this story misstated the number of watersheds in Western Maryland where drilling would be banned under the state’s proposed fracking guidelines. The correct number is four watersheds.


Fracking opponents say the drilling method contaminates drinking water and causes earthquakes. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

A Maryland legislative panel has placed a temporary hold on the state’s proposed fracking regulations amid sharp disagreements over whether the controversial gas-extraction method should be allowed at all.

The rare action by the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review prevents the state Department of the Environment from implementing the guidelines until Feb. 27, giving the General Assembly time to consider prohibiting the drilling practice, technically known as hydraulic fracturing.

Sen. Roger Manno (D-Montgomery) and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), who chair the panel, informed Environment Secretary Benjamin H. Grumbles of the hold in a Dec. 29 letter. They said the committee “wishes to ensure that concerns raised by stakeholders about the regulations are addressed.”

Fracking is shaping up to be one of the most hotly debated topics of the coming legislative session, with several lawmakers promising bills this year to ban the practice outright. Other members of the legislature have discussed introducing measures to either extend a moratorium that is set to expire in October or establish stricter rules than those proposed by state environmental officials.

Advocates say hydraulic fracturing — which involves injecting water, sand and chemicals deep into the ground to break up rock and release oil or natural gas — could provide economic benefits for Western Maryland. That is the part of the state where the practice is most likely to occur, with the aim of producing natural gas.

Opponents have raised concerns about groundwater contamination, air pollution and earthquakes, saying no safeguards can adequately protect the public and the environment.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has said he supports fracking with strict safeguards in place.

The environmental department, which proposed the regulations in November at the direction of the General Assembly, defended its draft rules but also promised to provide any additional information requested by the committee.

Agency spokesman Jay Apperson said the proposed regulations are “the most protective and comprehensive in the country.”

The guidelines would ban drilling in four watersheds in Western Maryland and require four layers of steel casing and cement around fracking wells to prevent water, gas and other fluids from migrating to other areas. But they would also allow fracking closer to homes and private wells than what the previous governor, Martin O’Malley (D), had proposed.

Manno said the joint committee wanted to give lawmakers time to weigh in on the rules before allowing them to move forward.

“There was absolutely no consensus that these regulations were ready for prime time,” he said.