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Editorial: Proceed carefully on fracking

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.

2 comments

  1. Is it any wonder why Maryland is near the bottom of the list of places to do business in the U.S.?

    This hyper-regulatory, hyper-cautious, “revenue-generating,” high tax mentality is killing the Maryland economy. If it were not for the artifiical stimulus of Federal jobs and military spending, Maryland’s unemployment rate would be a cerfifiable disaster.

    First, this notion that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is “high risk” is nonsense. Fracking has been around for decades and there is yet to be one, definitive case where fracking has caused pollution of well water. Fracking is no more a “high risk” endeavor than building an additional span acrross the Chesapeake: increased risk of traffic fatalities, traffic congestion, construction accidents, overdevelopment of the Eastern Shore, etc… Certainly there are risks with fracking as there are with any human activity. But to call it “high risk” has no basis in fact; it is sheer fabulism.

    Second, the decision to deny Western Maryland a potentially transformative influx of jobs and to deny the Maryland Treasury badly-needed revenues is a travesty. Maryland needs good paying jobs now and revenues from natural gas development could go a long way to reducing the State budget deficit, a far better method than tripling tolls and raising taxes yet again. The increased supply of natural gas can only help in reducing energy costs.

    Finally, delaying a decision on development until 2014 is a decision to delay development well beyond that date. Natural gas development cannot be set up overnight. It takes considerable time before wells can be in place and actually producing natural gas. And what energy company is going to want to come to Maryland? The Governor’s approach is sending a clear signal to the energy industry that Maryland is a hostile place to do business. It is a safe bet that the legislation and regulations that result from these studies and commissions will prove to be so onerous that they will effectively kill any chance of developing this treasure trove in Western Maryland.

    The proper approach would be to allow development to proceed with the proper oversight necessary for any industrial project. This is not “cart before the horse.” This is a recognition of the fundamental reality of energy development in hard economic times.

  2. From Wikipedia (for what it’s worth):

    Environmental and health effects

    Environmental and human health concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing include the contamination of ground water, risks to air quality, the migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface, and the potential mishandling of waste. The potential costs associated with possible environmental clean-up processes, loss of land value and human and animal health concerns are undetermined. A 2010 EPA study discovered contaminants in drinking water including: arsenic, copper, vanadium, and adamantanes adjacent to drilling operations; however, the EPA stated a broad range of sources including drilling or agricultural activity too could be responsible. New technological advances and appropriate state regulations are working to study and safely implement the process.

    Arguments against hydraulic fracturing center around the extent to which fracturing fluid used far below the earth’s surface might pollute fresh water zones, contaminate surface or near-surface water supplies, impact rock shelf causing seismic events or lead to surface subsidence. However, well casing failures and failures of the well grouting systems may have been responsible for gas migration into drinking water aquifers in Dimock, Pennsylvania. The transport, handling, storage and use of chemicals and chemical-laden water can also cause accidents that release materials into the environment, though this does not occur during the hydraulic fracturing process itself.

    It has been reported that the hydraulic fracturing industry has refused to publicly disclose, due to intellectual property concerns, the specific formulation of the fluids employed in the fracturing process. A “NOW on PBS” episode aired in March 2010 introduces the documentary film Gasland. The filmmaker claims that the chemicals include toxins, known carcinogens and heavy metals which may have polluted the ground water near well sites in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Colorado. The film also makes a case for explosive gases entering private potable water wells, causing “flammable water”.
    [edit] Chemicals used in fracturing fluid

    A number of chemicals identified in fracturing fluid are hazardous chemicals that may cause health risks that range from rashes to cancer. Some chemicals are identified as carcinogens. Some chemicals found injected into the earth identify as endocrine disruptors, which interrupts hormones and glands in the body that control development, growth, reproduction and behavior in animals and humans.

    Energy in Depth, an oil and gas industry organization has published a list of chemicals in a “typical solution used in hydraulic fracturing,” but notes “The specific compounds used in a given fracturing operation will vary.”

    The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has published a list of chemicals used in fracturing fluids. The report addresses many issues with well fracturing.

    The EPA has stated that on December 3, 2010, Halliburton has provided “written confirmation” that it will disclose hydraulic fracturing operations as per request. The EPA initiated a mandatory request for all operations to be disclosed. Halliburton is to provide the EPA with information by January 31, 2011. EPA’s mandatory request is subject to enforcement.

    A 2008 newspaper report states that medical personnel were inhibited in their treatment of workers injured in a fracturing accident because they did not know which specific chemicals were used. In the article, a nurse claimed she may have been exposed to the unknown chemicals on the patient’s clothes.Release of information, pertaining to hazardous components of any and all industrial chemicals, to medical and emergency personnel has been governed by OSHA since the 1974 Right-To-know legislation. If referenced by medical personnel, Material Safety Data Sheets will provide all information necessary for personal protection and the treatment of chemical exposure.

    Go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fracking for complete article and for sources.