Outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley says he is ready to allow drilling for natural gas in Western Maryland, but only if energy companies adhere to some of the most restrictive public health and environmental safeguards in the country.
O’Malley (D) will propose regulations next month that start with the “best practices” of other states and nations where hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is permitted, administration officials said. The regulations will include additional restrictions on drilling locations and efforts to limit the risks of drinking-water contamination and air pollution.
The rules would not take effect until after O’Malley is succeeded by Gov.-elect Larry Hogan (R), who on Tuesday criticized the governor for taking action on a number of controversial issues “on the way out the door.”
“We’re going to review every single one of them, I can assure you,” said Hogan, who has called drilling opportunities in Western Maryland “an economic gold mine” and faulted the state for taking too long to decide whether to allow fracking — which is already permitted in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Hogan, who will take office Jan. 21, restated his support for permitting fracking “in an environmentally sensitive way.” He said he had not yet read a report issued Tuesday that will form the basis for O’Malley’s proposal.
Environmentalists were divided in their reaction to O’Malley’s plans, with some saying the science is still a long way from showing fracking is safe and others suggesting it is important for O’Malley to propose an environmentally conscious framework for the practice with Hogan coming into office.
“The fact that we have a governor-elect who wants to move forward on fracking means we want to get some protections in place as soon as possible,” said Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. Raettig said she expects Hogan to loosen some of the restrictions.
Energy industry representatives, meanwhile, said that if the rules are not relaxed, Maryland would be at a competitive disadvantage with other states.
“These would be the strictest rules for drilling in the country,” said Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council. “The question is whether companies can operate under that. I don’t know. It’s much more onerous and time-consuming.”
Since Hogan’s election, O’Malley has also proposed regulations that would limit how much phosphorous-rich fertilizer farmers can apply to their fields — part of an effort to reduce harmful runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. Hogan opposes those regulations. In addition, O’Malley has reached out to relatives of victims of Maryland’s four remaining death-row inmates, spurring speculation that he might commute the inmates’ sentences in the weeks before he leaves office.
In an interview, O’Malley said he is doing nothing differently than he would have if Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, had won the election. “I have a responsibility and a public trust that I was sworn to uphold,” O’Malley said. “I’m sworn to uphold that for all eight years and every day of those eight years, and I intend to do so.”
The report released by O’Malley’s administration caps more than three years of study of whether Maryland should join other states in allowing fracking along the Marcellus Shale. The massive rock formation stretches southwest from New York through Pennsylvania, West Virginia and part of Ohio and passes through a pristine but job-starved slice of Western Maryland.
Over the course of 10 years, fracking could bring hundreds of new jobs and several million dollars in additional tax revenue to Allegany and Garrett counties, the administration’s report says. The report concludes that “the risks of Marcellus Shale development can be managed to an acceptable level” if the rules that O’Malley will propose are adopted and the state commits to “rigorous” monitoring to assure compliance.
Maryland would be the first state to require prospective applicants for drilling permits to submit a five-year plan, so the state could oversee efforts to deal with any damage to the environment, said Robert M. Summers, secretary of the state’s Department of the Environment.
There would be rules affecting where well pads could be located, with the aim of keeping them a safe distance from sources of drinking water, flood plains, state-designated wildlands and “sensitive cave habitats.”
Companies would be expected to use the most advanced technology to limit air pollution from the drilling sites, including the release of methane, a major concern for climate-change activists. Other proposed regulations are designed to limit the number of truck trips to well sites and to limit damage from spills and other accidents.
Summers said the administration has tried to craft a balanced approach. Companies interested in drilling “will probably say we have some areas where we’ve gone overboard,” he said. “But there are lots of people in the public who think we haven’t gone far enough.”
O’Malley said that given the years the state has spent studying fracking, “Maryland can’t afford to stick its head in the sand here. We should be leaders in promulgating the highest environmental and public health protections on fracking, because we have so much at stake.”
The outgoing governor, who is weighing a 2016 presidential bid, said he is hopeful that the regulations will “inspire surrounding states” to raise their standards. He acknowledged that, if fully adopted, the rules might not be inviting to the natural-gas industry.
“In the short term, as a practical matter, the industry will probably choose to frack in other states than Maryland where the standards are lower,” O’Malley said. But in the longer term, he said, “it could well be that responsible operations may well choose to come here.”
An advisory commission established by O’Malley in 2011 will have two weeks to offer comments on the report released Tuesday. Summers said O’Malley plans to propose regulations in mid-December. They would not take effect for at least several weeks, after another period of comment and review.
Apart from any action that Hogan may take, the Democratic-led state legislature could pass O’Malley’s proposed protections into law or chart a different course. In recent years, lawmakers’ opinions on fracking have varied, with some seeking to ban it and others urging the state to accelerate plans for drilling.
One outgoing lawmaker who has been active on the issue, Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), said it is premature to move forward with fracking.
“The only truly safe way to protect the environment, public health and the economy is to keep the gas in the ground,” said Mizeur, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor this year. “Right now, there is no evidence that fracking can be regulated safely.”
Hydraulic-fracturing wells are typically drilled vertically for up to 5,000 feet, then horizontally for about a mile, according to experts. A mix of water and chemicals is fired into the well to crack rock and release gas.
Hogan, who campaigned on promises to create jobs and make Maryland an easier place to do business, has touted the potential economic benefits of fracking.
The potential conflict between protecting the environment and encouraging commerce is also part of the debate over the farming regulations O’Malley proposed this month.
Farmers, particularly those on the Eastern Shore, argue that the long-debated rules limiting the use of chicken manure as fertilizer will be exceedingly costly if not undone by Hogan.
“It was kind of like a big in-your-face to the farmers,” said Del. Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll). “You’d think [O’Malley] would look at what happened in the election and let the new guys come in and deal with this.”