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Editorial: Fracking study is wise course

The House of Delegates acted wisely this week in approving legislation that would require energy companies to pay to pay for environmental safety studies before drilling into the Marcellus Shale beneath Western Maryland in their search for natural gas.

Under terms of the bill, approved 88-49, the companies would pay a one-time fee of $15 per acre of land they have leased in Maryland for drilling purposes. The $1.8 million collected from those fees would pay for a study by a state commission on the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where it failed last year. The Senate has the opportunity to rectify its mistake of 2011 and do the right thing in 2012.

Maryland is approaching the fracking issue as it should, in measured, responsible fashion. Rather than getting caught up in fracking mania as neighboring Pennsylvania did and then discovering that there can be unpleasant environmental consequences, Gov. Martin O’Malley named a commission to study the issue and examine best practices for the controversial technique of extracting underground gas.

The proceeds from this fee will pay for a key component of the commission’s work, which is only fair, since the energy companies stand to profit handsomely if fracking is successful in Maryland.

Fracking proponents worry that Maryland will be left behind economically because of its deliberate approach. But the subterranean gas deposits aren’t going anywhere, and the risk of environmental damage that could harm Western Maryland’s drinking water, not to mention its vital tourism industry, is too great to be ignored, especially given the problems in other states.

Maryland is on the right track at the right pace. Stay the course.