Maryland inches closer to decision time on hydraulic fracturing

The title in the hard copy of the newspaper (p. A-7) is “Maryland stuck in study mode over merit of gas drilling”

Maryland inches closer to decision time on hydraulic fracturing

Gus Chan Gus Chan/The Plain Dealer – The Chesapeake Energy oil rig drllls in Carroll County, Ohio. As states in the mid-Atlantic region lined up for the jobs and tax revenue that would come with drilling deep into the shale to release gas, Maryland held back, but there are signs that the state’s resolve is fading.

By , Published: December 8

As states in the Mid-Atlantic lined up for the jobs and tax revenue that would come with drilling deep into the shale to release gas, Maryland held back.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and other state officials said no thanks, wary that poisonous chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing could contaminate groundwater in rural areas where it matters most.

But there are signs that Maryland’s resolve is weakening. Time is slowly running out on a de facto drilling moratorium imposed by O’Malley, who issued an executive order last year that barred the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) from approving drilling permits until a scientific study costing $1.5 million could be completed. The state did not fund the study, and the deadline for completing it is summer 2013.

In a bid to keep the moratorium in place, opponents of fracturing — widely known as fracking — planned to meet this weekend in Baltimore to brainstorm on how to craft legislation to extend the deadline and fund the study on whether drilling is safe.

“What we’re hoping for with this session is a very strong shot across the bow,” said Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery County), who has sponsored numerous pieces of anti-drilling legislation. “No studies, no fracking. Until these studies are undertaken, there will be no drilling in Maryland.”

But in the past legislative session, the American Petroleum Institute thwarted a state Senate bill that sought to place a fee on the oil and gas industry for the study, which would investigate the quality of Maryland’s underground water in Garrett County, where the state’s Marcellus Shale is most abundant, and examine whether chemicals used in fracking would taint it.

Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland State Petroleum Council, a division of the petroleum institute, said the group favors a study but fought having to fund it.

“Tell me another example where a business wants to come into Maryland and has to pay for a study to do it,” Cobbs said. “When you’re working with people who don’t want to compromise, that’s the end result.”

Fracking in the Marcellus Shale, a 380 million-year-old layer of rock that runs from Ohio to Virginia, trapping an estimated 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, has yielded tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue for Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Maryland residents who support drilling, particularly those who leased property and sold mineral rights in Garrett County, say the governor’s moratorium and Mizeur’s legislation amounts to a “war against rural Maryland” that robs farmers of much-needed cash they could earn from royalties when gas is extracted.

Environmental activists and rural owners who filed lawsuits against gas companies say the damage is not worth the payout.

The typical hydraulic fracturing well is drilled vertically for up to 5,000 feet, then horizontally for about a mile. Up to 7 million gallons of water mixed with chemicals, including radium, a radioactive element, is fired down the well. Millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater bubbles back up before it’s hauled away for treatment.

Barbara Beelar
About the Author
Director Friends of Deep Creek Lake, founded in 2008. Barbara first came to deep creek lake in 1949. Master degrees in Latin American Studies from University of North Carolina and City Planning from MIT.