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Fracking commission unsure it will meet August deadline

ANNAPOLIS — The commission examining hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Maryland has about five months left in its study to determine if — and how — the natural gas extraction practice can be done safely in the state.

But some commission members said they are not sure the commission will be able to adequately finish the report by the Aug. 1 deadline.

“There’s a lot more work for us to complete,” said Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Takoma Park, a member of the commission and candidate for governor.

The commission, called the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, was created by Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2011 to help lawmakers and regulators determine how extracting gas from the Marcellus gas basin in Western Maryland could be safely done.

The commission is working with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources, and has met 26 times since 2011.

The governor is optimistic that the commission will finish the report but if the deadline slips, a few more additional weeks or months would be acceptable, Nina Smith, press secretary for O’Malley, wrote in an email.

Roy Meyers, a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the commission will be very important in the statewide fracking discussion because Maryland uses more commissions and task forces to shape policy than most other states.

He said most environmental policy commissions, like O’Malley’s, take a long time to finish because they require extensive studies.

Mizeur proposed a bill to the House Environmental Matters Committee called the “Shale Gas Drilling Safety Review Act of 2014.”

The bill would prohibit the Maryland Department of the Environment from issuing fracking permits for 18 months after the report is issued.

She said this would enable legislators and their constituents a full General Assembly session to weigh in on the results of the commission’s findings.

The commission still does not have a completed risk assessment, a public health study, an economic study or a best management practices study, said David Vanko, chairman of the commission and dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at Towson University.

Some commissioners said they have not met all of their timetables.

“It’s much more complicated than we thought,” said Stephen Bunker, a commissioner and director of conservation programs at the Maryland Office of the Nature Conservancy.

According to commission minutes, deadlines for the best management practices report, which the Department of the Environment contracted to the University of Maryland, were moved back several months in 2012 and an extension was made in 2013 for the public comment period.

Towson University is conducting the economic study and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science is conducting the health study which means much of the remaining work is out of the commission’s control, Vanko said.

Vanko said he expects most of these unfinished studies to conclude by the end of the spring.

In addition to the studies in Maryland that are in progress, some health studies looking at the effects of fracking around the U.S. are just being released, said Ann Bristow, a member of the commission and a psychology professor at Frostburg State University.

One study released in January in Colorado by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found an association between natural gas wells within a 10-mile radius of a pregnant woman’s home and congenital heart defects and potential neural tube defects in her child.

“It takes a while for the science to be produced around these issues,” Bristow said.

While the science of fracking is still ongoing, some members of the commission said they also think the commission should have more funding to finish its own studies.

Legislation failed in 2012 that would have partly paid for some of the studies by imposing a fee on natural gas prospectors who leased land in Maryland.

Since then, O’Malley allocated $1.5 million for this fiscal year to support research for the study.

Vanko said the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources are using the funding for the economic study, the public health study and some scientific studies of surface water, groundwater and air quality in Western Maryland.

Bunker said while some money has been spent on groundwater studies, more studies would help the commission get a better idea about how Western Maryland’s geography could be affected by fracking.

Some citizens raised their own funds for an independent risk assessment.

Last fall, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Citizen Shale, a Garrett County group, hired Ricardo-AEA, a British environmental consulting firm, to do a risk assessment.

Paul Roberts, a cofounder of Citizen Shale and a commissioner, said the action network used foundations and Citizen Shale used money from residents in Mountain Lake Park in Garrett County to fund the study.

According to that study’s findings, surface water contamination and groundwater contamination are among the high risks Maryland would face if fracking occurred.

Vanko said that while groups outside the commission have paid for an independent study, the work the commission is already doing is technically a risk assessment.

But not all of the commissioners think more funds would benefit the study.

William Valentine, an Allegany County commissioner and member of the fracking commission, said more funds might prolong the commission’s work because it would enable it to look deeply into any potential concern, including unnecessary ones, raised by members.

Valentine said he does not think the report will be entirely ready by August.

Some commission members said that while they think their work has been efficient, some of the studies are looking into theoretical, extraneous problems rather than practical ones.

Shawn Bender, president of the Garrett County Farm Bureau and a member of the commission, said areas like transportation are already regulated by the state and federal government and the commission should not spend too much time on that study.

“You can study things to death,” said Sen. George Edwards, R-Allegany and Garrett. “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

Edwards said while the commission has been effective, fracking is the most studied issue he can remember in recent state history.

“It’s kind of strange to make it go that long,” he said.

Some commissioners said a continued moratorium by the Maryland Department of the Environment before it could allow fracking, like the kind proposed by Mizeur, is unnecessary.

“This isn’t, ‘finish the report and turn the switch, then drilling rigs show up the next day,’” said Jeffrey Kupfer, a senior advisor for Chevron’s government affairs and a commissioner.

Vanko said the commission is proposing a requirement for gas companies that come to Maryland to provide two years of site-specific environmental baseline data before they can drill.

Vanko said there is consensus in the commission that making two-year baseline plans mandatory is a good idea. If adopted, the measure would make Maryland the first state to have that requirement.

Lyle Kendrick – CNS

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