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House approves Western Maryland drilling fee

ANNAPOLIS — Natural gas companies would have to pay for safety studies before drilling into Western Maryland’s Marcellus Shale deposits under legislation passed by the House of Delegates Tuesday, a move that one Garrett County lawmaker said would discourage the industry.

HB 1204, which would force companies to pay a one-time fee of $15 per acre on land they’ve already leased in Maryland, passed in the House, 88-49.

The bill must still be approved by the Senate, where its prospects are uncertain. Similar legislation failed in the Senate last year after passing in the House.

The House also gave final approval Tuesday to HB 1123, which would require companies to repair any property damaged as a result of fracking, including replacing contaminated water supplies. This legislation also must be approved by the Senate.

The fee mandated in the House bill would raise at least $1.8 million to fund drilling and environmental protection studies.

A 14-member commission, appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley last June, would conduct the study. The commission needs about $2 million to complete the work.

The governor’s commission must finish its study by August 2013, and then must present its findings to the General Assembly with recommendations on whether and under what circumstances to allow hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — in Maryland.

Del. Wendell R. Beitzel, R-Garrett, said the bill approved Tuesday at least gets the ball rolling on the study.

But he also said it would slow job growth for an already struggling Garrett County economy, and send a negative message to companies that want to drill into the Marcellus Shale — a deposit of natural gas encased in rock — that runs one mile beneath much of Western Maryland’s surface.

“We’ve got a big sign up at the border that says ‘gas companies not welcome,’” Beitzel said. “My concern is we’re throwing so many hurdles in the way of something that can have a really, really significant impact on the economy in Western Maryland [and] create jobs.”

The bill’s proponents said it was important to make Maryland the first state to commission a study before allowing companies to drill. Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, said the controversial drilling practice has been linked to flammable drinking water and earthquakes in other states.

Fracking has also been connected to global warming, as methane gas is released into the atmosphere in the course of drilling.

“Maryland is the first state in the nation to put pause on doing any fracking until a review is done,” said Mizeur, the bill’s lead sponsor. It is important that the state take the time to get the correct regulations in place at the start of the process, she added, rather than try to change those regulations should problems arise.

“Second chances are really expensive,” she said.

As for concerns about hampering job growth, Mizeur discounted the impact of any delay in drilling. She said many industry jobs would not go to Marylanders, anyway.

“These aren’t jobs for the local area. These are jobs for oil and gas professionals that are brought in from Texas, Louisiana and other oil -producing states,” Mizeur said. “We have a lot of lessons across the board that we learned from other states … We benefited from looking around us.”

Eric Robison, of Oakland, said it was important to get out in front of the industry before it began its work.

“You see them privatizing the profits and socializing the problems,” Robison said. “By having fee structures in place, it allows us to get ahead of the game before it starts.”

Lawmakers should also be concerned about what the natural gas industry might do to Garrett County’s tourism economy, he said. Robison is founder of citizenshale.org, a website that aims to create a dialogue about protecting citizens from the negative impacts of fracking.

The Deep Creek Lake area is “kind of like Ocean City” in that it attracts a high number of tourists, Robison said. About 1.1 million people visit Garrett County each year, according to the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce.

“What would the impact of an industrial process in a tourist economy do,” Robison asked. “We haven’t looked at what would happen to our tourist economy.”

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, is the legislation’s sponsor in that chamber, and the bill will be heard in the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City, chair of the Senate committee, said she did not expect the panel to suggest amendments to the House bill, since the Senate committee spent so much time considering last year’s bill. She said that she and House Environmental Matters Committee chair, Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City, had agreed that the Senate panel would work with the House bill.

But Conway could not say for sure how the bill might fare in committee or in the full Senate.

Mizeur thinks the legislation will win Senate approval and move to the governor’s desk for signing.

“I think we’re going to have some interesting info to share next week regarding public opinion about this approach,” Mizeur said. “That will help propel our momentum in the Senate.

“It’s a question of, does the taxpayer pay or does the industry pay? We have to pass this bill to get the revenue necessary to get the answers.”