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Mike Tidwell: Maryland needs drill fee for fracking study

Paul Roberts is a Western Maryland farmer who – understandably – doesn’t want his world to change.

He grows gorgeous Appalachian wine grapes on a modest spread in Garrett County, near the Pennsylvania border. He and his wife Nadine turn those grapes into 1,000 cases of handcrafted wine sold annually across the East Coast. They offer wine tastings for travelers lucky enough to wander by their scenic mountainside farm where they also grow vegetables and sell local cheeses.

But Roberts told lawmakers in Annapolis last week that his farmland and his way of life are profoundly threatened by the controversial natural gas drilling practice known as “hydraulic fracturing.”

What’s needed, he said, is action from the General Assembly to pass a common-sense bill with a long name: the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Study Fee Act (SB 798/HB 1204). This bill would help protect Western Marylanders from the worst impacts of the “fracking” drilling method now widely practiced – with rising regrets – in neighboring Pennsylvania.

The Marcellus Shale is a mile-deep deposit of rock-encased natural gas stretching from New York to Tennessee and running beneath much of Western Maryland. The proposed legislation in Annapolis, co-sponsored by Montgomery County Democrats Del. Heather Mizeur and Sen. Brian Frosh, would require energy companies to pay a modest fee to fund a set of environmental studies and a “best practices” report before the drilling technique is permitted in the state.

Under the bill, there would also be an assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by this drilling method. In a House of Delegates hearing last week featuring Roberts and other concerned Western Maryland landowners, lawmakers learned that the fracking process releases significant amounts of methane — a powerful heat-trapping gas — into the atmosphere.

Serious problems elsewhere

This in turn contributes to steadily rising temperatures worldwide and the growing pattern of bizarre weather that scientists link to climate change.

Roberts says the seasons in his region have been increasingly unusual. The spring blooms of his wine grapes have been coming freakishly early in recent years, and there have been increasingly extreme precipitation events – including an unprecedented May hail storm in 2010 that wiped out more than half his grape supply.

So Roberts is alarmed about reports of methane released from fracked gas wells in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

“I just want to keep making good wine on a sustainably operated farm,” Roberts said last week. “I don’t want my drinking water poisoned by fracking and I’d like to know that any drilling – if it happens – doesn’t make global warming worse.”

Fracking for natural gas is now widespread in Pennsylvania, involving thousands of wells. It has led to serious incidents of contaminated drinking water, polluted rivers, spills at drill sites and even suspected earthquakes triggered in eastern Ohio.

That’s why, last June, Gov. Martin O’Malley prudently appointed a 14-member study commission (including Roberts) to advise the General Assembly on whether to allow fracking here at all, and if so with what safeguards.

The commission’s final report is due in August 2014.

Just one problem — money

The only problem, Roberts testified last week, is that the governor’s study group has no money to do its job.

The commission needs $2 million or more to underwrite “baseline” studies of the current health of Western Maryland’s steams, drinking wells and other key resources. This will allow state agencies to better monitor, measure, and correct any major impacts should fracking be permitted in Maryland.

Those impacts could include huge volumes of waste water from the deep-drilling process, chemical contamination, pipeline construction, and huge fleets of heavy trucks needed for the operation.

The Mizeur-Frosh bill would fund the governor’s commission with a modest $10-per-acre fee paid by energy companies, which have already leased the mineral rights to nearly one third of the surface area of Garrett County for potential fracking.

Without this drilling fee legislation, most observers agree that the commission will be hard-pressed to save the state from the worst of what’s happening in Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, at least nine other worthy fracking bills have been introduced in Annapolis, ranging from tax matters to information transparency. But no bill is as important HB 1204/SB 798.

Without Mizeur’s bill to fund the vital reports related to methane emissions and natural resource protection, no other reform measures are likely to succeed.

Back in Garrett County, wine grower Paul Roberts of Deep Creek Cellars has returned to his farm. From his house he can see and hear fracking activity underway just across the Pennsylvania border. And he frets every day about this year’s potentially record-setting warm winter.

“My grapes may bloom this year in March!” he says. “That’s totally unheard of. Off the charts. Beyond imagination. It makes you wonder just what the heck we’ve already done to ourselves and this fragile planet.”

Mike Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. His email address is mtidwell@chesapeakeclimate.org