In their sliver of western Maryland, Garrett County residents like to boast of night skies so clear that you can see satellites lumber across the heavens, a picturesque deep creek that is the state’s largest inland body of water, and adventure tourism that Indiana Jones types love.
But land speculators who showed up in the county in 2008 with offers to lease farm acres had other interests. Their eyes were set on a valuable resource deep underground: natural gas deposits buried in thick layers of Marcellus Shale, a black, organic-rich shale found under the Appalachian region. West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio lie over extensive shale formations, but small areas of Maryland and Virginia do as well.
And just like that, Garrett County, population 29,000, joined Rockingham County, Va., as local Washington- area governments fully engaged in the nation’s debate over hydraulic drilling for natural gas and its risk of contaminating drinking water.
The American Petroleum Institute maintains that hydraulic drilling is safe, “a tried-and-true technology that promises thousands of new jobs and vast and indispensable supplies of clean-burning energy,” said Carlton Carroll, a spokesman.
But American Rivers, an environmental conservation group, advises caution. Hydraulic drilling, which releases natural gas by shattering shale with high-pressure bursts of millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals, “creates a very briny wastewater” that can flow back to the surface and leak into sources of drinking water, said Jessie Thomas-Blate, who monitors endangered rivers for the group.
“It’s an issue for the Chesapeake Bay that impacts Washington, D.C.,” said Thomas-Blate. “If you contaminate people’s water, you can’t go back.”
As a result of studies and exploration, estimates of the nation’s gas reserves are twice as large as those a year ago, according to the Department of Energy, larger even than Russia’s giant reserves, prompting experts to call the United States the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.
There were nearly 20,000 shale wells in the United States in 2007, with a record 4,000 built in that year alone, an increase of 75 percent since 2000, according to the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
But concerns over vertical wells and newly developed horizontal fracturing, a method by which drills go straight down and then sideways, have steadily grown.
Maryland blocked drilling last year, refusing to issue permits to Chief Oil & Gas and to Samson Resources to drill in Garrett County until studies determine that drinking water will not be harmed. The decision played a role in prompting the companies to cancel land leases worth millions of dollars to area farmers, county officials said.
Virginia officials gave one oil and gas company the go-ahead to drill a single exploratory well in Rockingham County, population 74,000. In doing so, the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy looked past the reservations expressed by the county commissioner, who feared that the chemicals used to fracture the rock will taint streams that shelter protected species and trout that draw fishermen.
“This thing happens to be in the district I represent,” said Pablo Cuevas, chairman of the county board of supervisors. Gas companies had 6,000 acres under lease in the county, but they “selected a site in the flood plain with a stream leading to the Shenandoah River that leads to the Chesapeake Bay,” Cuevas said.
A spokesman for the state energy department said 1,800 gas wells were previously drilled in Virginia using similar methods “with no reports of well water contamination.”
But county supervisors delayed further drilling by denying the company, Carrizo Marcellus Inc., a special land-use permit.
A major concern, Cuevas and environmentalists said, is the use of new chemicals in fracturing such as diesel fuel, and that states and the federal government have no specific policies to approve and monitor drilling. The Environmental Protection Agency is in the middle of an investigation into the adverse affects of fracturing, also known as fracking, launched last year.
Last week, three Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released the findings of an investigation that said “oil and gas companies have injected 32 million gallons of . . . hydraulic fracturing fluids containing diesel fuel in wells in 19 states between 2005 and 2009,” an apparent violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Under the act, the companies need an EPA permit to use diesel fuel in fracturing, but none was issued, Reps. Henry A. Waxman of California, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Diana DeGette of Colorado said in a statement.
In Garrett County, landowner Dennis Buckel was frustrated by Maryland’s decision to delay drilling. In 2008, when speculators knocked on his door offering $5 per acre one week, then $80 per acre the next, Buckel rounded up his neighbors to form a committee that eventually got leases worth $1,250 per acre.
But as Buckel and his neighbors waited for approval from the state, they heard cautionary tales about landowners such as Craig and Julie Sautner in Dimock, Pa., who cashed in on leases to gas companies.
The Sautners claimed in a recent federal lawsuit that they developed skin rashes and nearly passed out while showering because of fumes in the water. After 100 wells were dug in their community, residents showed television reporters that they could turn their tap water faucets on and light the water on fire.
“They have very high levels of methane in their water,” Julie Sautner said. “Farmers who think that this is an easy way out, it’s absolutely not. You’re trading your health and your water. We can’t move. Nobody wants to buy our house.”
Pennsylvania residents have filed multiple lawsuits. New York state placed a moratorium on new drilling permits after its residents complained.
The stories gave Buckel pause. “We need to know what’s in that fracking fluid,” he said. “Sure we’d like to have the lease, but we don’t want to mess up the water.”
Maryland state Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery County), is preparing legislation to ban drilling in the state until it is determined that it will not taint water. “We expect robust support,” she said. “The fuel source isn’t bad, we’re just concerned about the extraction method.”