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Maryland fracking commission to request deadline extension

With no way to pay for it, a state commission intends to ask for more time to complete a study into the best practices of a controversial natural gas drilling technique.

Del. Heather Mizeur: ‘I am opposed to trying to piece together dollars here, dollars there for lesser level studies.’

Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, a member of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, said the group decided after meeting on Friday to send a letter to Gov. Martin O’Malley requesting an extension of the August deadline for their next update, but the commission did not select a preferred date. The final report is due in August 2014.

The commission is studying hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process by which natural gas is extracted by drilling into the Marcellus Shale — a deposit of natural gas encased in rock — that runs one mile beneath much of Western Maryland’s surface. The commission was tasked by O’Malley in 2011 to determine what environmental impacts drilling in Garrett and Allegany counties might have.

HB 1124 would have funded the scientific study, which is expected to cost $2 million, by forcing natural gas companies that have signed leases in Western Maryland to pay the state $15 per acre of leased land. The fee was projected to raise about $1.8 million.

A Senate committee never voted on the bill after it was approved by the House of Delegates.

If an extension is not granted and a method to pay for the study is not agreed upon, the commission may be forced to make its recommendations based on the analysis of existing research.

“I am opposed to trying to piece together dollars here, dollars there for lesser level studies,” Mizeur said.

She said she plans to again introduce legislation in 2013 that would create a funding mechanism for the study. Efforts to have gas companies pay for the study failed the last two years.

But Mizeur said the companies are just hurting themselves; until a study is completed, a moratorium on drilling would likely continue.

“They could have played along with us,” Mizeur said. “Our policy should continue to be no permits until we get the studies.”

An O’Malley spokeswoman said the governor would have to read the commission’s letter before making any decision on pushing back a reporting deadline.

“We’d have to see the reasoning behind it,” Raquel Guillory said. “If it makes sense, it makes sense.”

Del. Wendell R. Beitzel, R-Garrett and Allegany, said the proposed fees are giving natural gas companies the impression they are not wanted in the state. The moratorium is costing Western Maryland jobs, he said.

“The state of Maryland is looking at biotechnology and medical technology and other ways to encourage business to come into Maryland, trying to create economic development,” Beitzel said. “This is a way to provide economic stimulus here in Western Maryland.”

Beitzel said “distant cousins” are owners of the Beitzel Corp., a Garrett County company that — in part — does site preparation and rents equipment for oil and gas services. Shawn Bender, the regional manager for the company, sits on the fracking commission.

But Beitzel questioned the motivation of other members of the commission who want the gas companies to spend money on a study.

“I really think that there are people involved in this process that really don’t care whether there’s ever any drilling or not,” Beitzel said. “Since natural gas is such a game changer in the whole United States … natural gas has become so cheap that the green energy movement is really in jeopardy. A lot of the opposition to fracking is based on the fact that it’s become such an economical form of energy.”

Mizeur said there are three camps in the commission: those who want to drill right now; those who want to drill only if a safety study is completed; and those who don’t want any drilling at all. She hesitated to commit to one camp.

“I’m very skeptical that this can be done safely,” Mizeur said. “But I’m open minded.”

Beitzel said he and Sen. George C. Edwards, R-Western Maryland — who sits on the commission — were more concerned about drilling safety than anyone because the drilling would happen in their area. But they also know that companies have other options if they wish to drill, Beitzel said. Maryland contains a tiny portion of the total Marcellus Shale deposits that run beneath much of eastern North America.

“We have some of the cleanest water in the state, and obviously any industrial activity there is a risk, and we want to minimize risk,” Beitzel said. “We’re the last people that want to see our water and our environment damaged.”

Mike Tidwell, director of the nonprofit Chesapeake Climate Action Network, wasn’t shy about casting his lot in with the anti-drilling crowd. He said studies have linked the drilling practice to flammable drinking water and earthquakes in other states, including Pennsylvania. It has also been connected to global warming, as methane gas is released into the atmosphere in the course of drilling.

With scientific studies potentially in peril, Tidwell said his organization — which lobbies in Annapolis about the consequences of global warming — is prepared to launch an anti-fracking campaign in the next several weeks.

“This is becoming a bigger and bigger problem,” Tidwell said. “We don’t feel the taxpayers of Maryland should have to pay to conduct studies that ultimately are in the best interest of the oil companies.”