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Moratorium on gas drilling close to passing

ANNAPOLIS — Legislation to create a temporary moratorium on natural gas drilling in Western Maryland’s Marcellus Shale deposits appears poised for passage in the House of Delegates.

The full House gave the bill, HB 852, preliminary approval Tuesday after the chamber rejected five amendments and an attempt to shelve debate by the proposal’s staunchest opponent, Del. Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett.

The bill, dubbed the “Maryland Shale Safe Drilling Act of 2011,” would restrict drilling in Maryland’s slice of the Marcellus formation until 2013, when two state agencies would be required to complete a study that outlines the potential environmental impact associated with a drilling method called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

The technique, which pumps water mixed with chemicals into rock formations, has been touted as a technological breakthrough because it allows oil and gas companies to drill deeper and horizontally to extract natural gas from the formation for the first time.

But fracking has been the subject of scrutiny after explosions at drilling sites in several states. The Environmental Protection Agency in a 2010 report also raised questions about the impact fracking could have on water and air quality.

“Drilling in the Marcellus Shale is not like drilling for natural gas in any other form that we have known,” said Delegate Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and the chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. “We’ve got a lot of questions to answer.”

The Marcellus Shale, one of the largest natural gas deposits in the country, lies beneath New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Western Maryland. Production wells have been drilled in all of those states except Maryland, where Garrett and a small piece of Allegany have been pegged by the energy industry as anticipated areas of natural gas production.

Two companies have filed permit applications for fracking with the Maryland Department of the Environment, according to the bill’s fiscal note. No permits have been issued, and the bill would delay issuance of any permits until 2013, creating the drilling moratorium.

Western Maryland lawmakers see the Marcellus formation as a potential goldmine for cash-strapped Garrett and Allegany counties.

Garrett County estimates that a severance tax charged on natural gas drilling could bring in up to $34.6 million annually, Beitzel said. Landowners could receive an average of up to $47,160 in royalties for each well in the first year.

“We’re suffering out there,” said Beitzel, who owns land in Garrett County above the Marcellus formation that he would like to have drilled for natural gas.

Beitzel filed legislation this session to force the state to start approving or denying permit requests for fracking. That bill failed in committee.

The House is expected to take a final vote on the moratorium bill by Thursday.

Supporters said they have enough votes to advance the bill. Beitzel also conceded Tuesday that he does not have the support to block its passage.

The measure still must be approved by the Senate, where one Western Marylander lawmaker already is readying amendments to the bill.

Sen. George Edwards, R-Garrett, said the bill will look different once it hits the Senate floor, but he didn’t elaborate.

The bill has support in the Senate but will face added hurdles because the oil and gas lobby “have been working the issue harder in that chamber,” said Del. Heather Mizeur, a Democrat from Montgomery and the lead sponsor of the moratorium proposal.

“It’s a smaller chamber and easier to flip some votes in a certain direction,” she said.”We’re hopeful the momentum from the House will help.”