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Editorial: Proceed carefully on fracking

Editorial: Proceed carefully on fracking

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Gov. Martin O’Malley made the right call this week in commissioning an in-depth study of drilling for natural gas in Western Maryland’s portion of the Marcellus Shale.

Such drilling would require the use of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — a process that pumps millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand underground at extremely high pressure to break through shale formations and release the natural gas beneath.

This is the ultimate high-risk, high-reward endeavor. That’s why the governor’s approach — a three-layer analysis that could take as long as three years — makes good sense.

Fracking is already underway in Pennsylvania, which lies atop a vast expanse of the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation underneath much of the northeastern United States believed to contain large amounts of natural gas. Estimates range as high as $2 trillion worth of economic activity that could be generated in Pennsylvania by the fracking boom there.

But there are serious problems as well. In April, an Oklahoma energy company suspended work on its wells in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio while it investigated a two-day leak at a well in Canton, Pa., that spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water into farm fields and a nearby stream.

A month earlier, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbin had created a 30-member commission to balance the economic potential and environmental concerns of fracking. That is a clear case of cart before horse and underscores the reason we strongly prefer Maryland’s approach.

The problems are not limited to Pennsylvania. New York has imposed a moratorium on fracking while it develops stronger regulations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is studying whether fracking fluids have contaminated drinking water in various parts of the country, a charge often leveled by fracking opponents. Initial results are due next year.

A booming natural gas industry has the potential to transform the economy of Western Maryland, which has long struggled. It could bring jobs and prosperity to that part of the state while providing Maryland homes and businesses a new source of a cleaner-burning fuel than oil or coal.

But is fracking worth the risk? Tourism activity, much of it centered around Garrett County’s Deep Creek Lake, has emerged as Western Maryland’s economic driver. Jeopardizing the quality or quantity of water available for residents and tourists would be a terrible price to pay.

The governor’s executive order calls for recommendations for revenue-generating legislation, such as a severance tax, and liability standards by the end of 2011; best practices for drilling and production by August 2012, and a final report assessing environmental impact by August 2014.

We believe this approach puts things in their proper order. The state can figure out the regulatory basics over the next year so it can have a structure ready to put in place. Meanwhile, the environmental findings can benefit from other studies and lessons learned in other states.

Much is riding on this decision, and we have only one chance to get it right. That’s why we need to take the time to do exactly that.

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