A draft of a state report on a controversial method of extracting underground reserves of natural gas has an opponent of the technique in Maryland wondering if it may be a done deal.
Supporters, on the other hand, wonder if the report’s suggested regulations would smother the industry under an avalanche of oversight.
The final version of the report released June 25 by the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources on the technique, called hydraulic fracturing, in Western Maryland’s Marcellus Shale formation isn’t scheduled to be released until the fall.
The technique is sometimes called “fracking” and is a process in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the ground to release natural gas contained in rock formations.
The Marcellus Shale formation stretches from Virginia to New York beneath the Appalachian Mountains and contains vast amounts of natural gas.
Maryland’s section of the formation lies in Garrett and Allegany counties.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) issued an executive order in 2011 and appointed the 15-member committee of scientists, members of the gas industry, business, agricultural and environmental communities, local elected officials and state legislators to study the fracking issue.
The report is the second of three required by August 2014 by the governor’s executive order, with the other studies including a review of the economic impacts of fracking and a public health study.
Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, emphasized that no decision has been made on whether drilling in the Marcellus Shale will be permitted.
A public comment period on the second report will be open until Aug. 9, after which the comments will be reviewed and a final draft of the report should be released by the fall, he said.
But legislators on both sides of the issue have already raised questions about what the report’s effects will be.
Del. Shane Robinson (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village was one of two Montgomery County legislators to propose a ban on fracking in Maryland in the 2013 General Assembly. He said he is worried that by including suggested regulations in the report the state has skipped the question of whether fracking should be allowed at all.
It would be odd to start talking about how the industry should be regulated, then go back and talk about whether it should be allowed, he said.
“They are paving the way to fracking,” Robinson said.
But other lawmakers see things differently.
The premise of the report is to kill fracking by adding so many regulations that it will be cost-prohibitive for companies to do it, said Sen. David Brinkley (R-Dist. 4) of New Market.
The draft report suggests the state should create a voluntary program through which a company interested in starting a fracking operation would submit a comprehensive plan for drilling in a larger area before applying for permits to drill individual wells.
The report calls for the process to be set up so as not to be “unduly burdensome” to applicants while reducing the adverse effects of fracking to the environment.
Although the report says that accidents related to fracking in other states have been “relatively rare,” the incidents have included “injuries, well blowouts, releases of fracturing fluids, releases of methane, spills, fires, forest fragmentation, damage to roads, and allegations of contamination of ground water and surface water.”
Suggested regulations outline everything from how far wells should be set back from streams, rivers and wetlands to how and where pipelines, holding tanks, retention ponds and access roads should be constructed and how water used in fracking operations should be stored and disposed of.
There are also guidelines for how companies should report which chemicals they’re using and a suggestion that engines on vehicles and equipment limit unnecessary idling to 5 minutes to reduce emissions.
Brinkley alleged that the extensive regulations included in the draft report were meant by opponents to be so restrictive as to limit any growth in the fracking industry even if it’s ultimately allowed.
“And by that end, they’ll get what they want,” he said.
Garrett County Del. Wendell Beitzel, an advocate of fracking, said the regulations would be so restrictive they would tell energy companies not to come to Maryland.
“I think the message is already out to the companies” that Maryland isn’t really open to fracking, said Beitzel (R-Dist. 1A) of Accident.
Beitzel believes some of the claims about pollution and environmental damage have been exaggerated to scare people and decrease support for fracking.
He acknowledged there have been problems in other states with disposal of the water used in the process, but said Maryland already has strict rules on wastewater disposal and he’s confident they can handle the water used in fracking.
Fracking would benefit the local economy by providing money to local farmers as energy companies lease their land for drilling spaces, and building and putting the infrastructure in place for the wells will employ local people, he said.
Robinson acknowledged that while the fracking industry has improved its methods, there are still problems such as excessive release of methane that are being seen in areas where the practice is allowed.
Maryland can come up with better ways to create energy jobs, such as getting the offshore wind farms approved by the General Assembly in the last session up and running, he said.
But mostly, he’s looking for some resolution on whether fracking is something the state should pursue.
“I would like to see us finally answer the question of whether we think fracking is a good idea or not,” he said.