ANNAPOLIS — While most eyes in the debate on fracking are on the Marcellus Shale region in Western Maryland, a smaller gas basin underneath Southern Maryland is drawing a Texas-based energy company’s attention.
Shore Exploration and Production Corp. has leased 84,000 acres of land in Virginia in relation to the Taylorsville basin, which is mostly in Virginia but also runs through most of Charles County and also goes into St. Mary’s, Prince George’s, Calvert and Anne Arundel counties.
Shore once leased Maryland land with Exxon and Texaco during the late 1980s to study the basin, but the companies were unable to use it for extracting natural gas, said Stan Sherrill, Shore’s president.
Nowadays, however, energy companies have much stronger technology than in 1990, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which is also called fracking, Sherrill said.
Shore has not begun drilling in Virginia. And it won’t currently lease in Maryland because of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s order that prevents the Maryland Department of the Environment from approving drilling permits until the end of a scientific study examining fracking.
“Until they’re willing to change their moratorium, it’s a moot question,” Sherrill said.
The study is expected to be finalized later this year.
Del. Shane Robinson, D-Montgomery, said small basins such as Taylorsville have not been as widely publicized as Marcellus, and residents might not be aware that fracking could directly impact them if legalized in Maryland.
“It’s not just a Western Maryland issue,” he said.
Jim Coleman, a research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, said he sees the biggest risks in fracking operations to be surface-level accidents that happen with fracking chemicals and flowback water.
External factors such as low-weight bridges have also caused fracking-related accidents in other states, he said.
“To me, the biggest problems in Pennsylvania have been to do with the road infrastructure,” he said.
Coleman worked on a 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey that assessed several basins in the eastern United States, including Taylorsville and four others in Maryland that are not a part of the Marcellus Shale region.
The study estimated that there are 1.064 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Taylorsville basin — a fraction of the potential of the Marcellus Shale basin, which has an estimated 84 trillion cubic feet of gas.
Despite the size difference, the oil and gas industry could take note of smaller basins like Taylorsville because shale gas is a finite resource and the Marcellus basin won’t last forever, Robinson said. The 2012 study also showed that a natural gas basin called the Culpeper basin runs under part of Montgomery County, Robinson’s county.
Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles, said while he has not heard concerns from his constituents, he said that if fracking can be done in an environmentally responsible way, it could create economic opportunities in Charles County and significantly increase some property values.
“It brings the issue a lot closer to home,” he said.
Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said natural gas being produced in the United States has led to a smaller trade deficit and created tens of thousands of jobs in the Pennsylvania region.
He said he could see these kinds of benefits happening at the local level with a smaller basin like Taylorsville.
But some organizations that want an extension to the governor’s fracking moratorium said Shore’s interest in the Taylorsville basin shows that fracking is an immediate issue.
“It should be a signal to the Marylanders living in the rest of the Taylorsville basin that this is very real and drilling like this could come to Maryland in the near future,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.