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Report: Fracking a win-win

An environmental advocacy group is crying foul over a report commissioned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources that it says shows the state is readying regulations to allow hydraulic fracturing. State officials say there’s nothing to see here.

The 27-page report, written by a former top official in Pennsylvania who oversaw hydraulic fracturing as secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, touts the use of comprehensive gas development plans in Maryland. Such a plan would prevent companies from receiving a drilling permit until they detailed how much land they would disturb.

Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch interpreted the report as the start of policy formation in Maryland. But a DNR researcher said Friday that the organization misinterpreted the “white paper.”

John H. Quigley, the former Pennsylvania official, has spent the past two years as a state consultant while a commission formed by Gov. Martin O’Malley has studied the safety and best practices of the controversial natural gas drilling technique known by most as fracking.

“I’m not sure why there was a reaction from Food & Water Watch,” said Christine Conn, unit director of DNR’s Integrated Policy and Review Unit. “It is an advisory paper. It in no way should be interpreted as commissioning Mr. Quigley to draft regulations for us. We consider it a progressive piece of research.”

Energy companies seeking to drill began leasing land from farmers in Western Maryland at least as early as 2006. About a mile below much of Garrett County and part of Allegany County lies a gas-encased rock formation called Marcellus Shale. The gas is extracted through a process that includes blasting a water and chemical mixture into the rock, fracturing it and allowing gas to seep out.

No company ever received permission to drill, and a 2011 executive order issued by O’Malley all but demanded no permit be issued until fracking’s safety was studied and regulations were drafted. His order created the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, which has since studied fracking in conjunction with DNR and the Maryland Department of the Environment. O’Malley had directed the commission to report its findings by August 2014.

Quigley is expected to present his report to the commission on Monday. In it, he concludes that “Maryland has the opportunity to take a national leadership position in demonstrating how smart planning can achieve environmental and business ‘win-wins.’”

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said Quigley’s report amounted to the start of regulation setting in Maryland.

The fracking commission released a report on best practices in May, which also called for the submission of five-year plans before natural gas companies could receive a permit. Maryland would become the only state to demand such a plan.

That report is open to public comment through mid-August. Some in the environmental community have questioned in recent weeks how the commission could recommend best practices without first completing a safety study.

“The commissioning of this report contradicts Gov. O’Malley’s public insistence that he will not pursue fracking until it is declared safe,” Hauter said. “He’s said that Maryland won’t turn into another Pennsylvania. But then why is he hiring the official that brought fracking there to smooth over the challenges to forming regulations to open Maryland to fracking?”

Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman for O’Malley, called Food & Water Watch’s accusations “bogus.”

“They completely ignored the MDE and DNR … they never bothered to contact them to get our side in it,” Winfield said. “It’s inaccurate. … No decision has been made on whether to allow fracking in Maryland.”

She also said O’Malley had no direct role in soliciting Quigley’s opinion. Quigley testified before the House of Delegates’ Environmental Matters Committee this year on the issue of drilling plans, officials said, and members of the committee and the fracking commission requested he present a formal report.

“It’s not like this guy is on the governor’s quick dial list,” Winfield said.

Conn, the DNR researcher, stressed that Quigley’s report was intended to be a complementary resource for the commission and state agencies as they consider whether to issue drilling permits.

“It provides additional information for the commission, the agencies and the public to better understand how a comprehensive drilling plan could be used to preserve the protection of our resources, should we go forth with hydraulic fracturing,” Conn said. “We’ve indicated we would like to see this as a mandatory requirement before any company submits a permit. We would like to see the entirety of their operation and what they plan to do.”

Samantha Kappalman, a spokeswoman for MDE, said the report was commissioned to “make sure all the decisions are made based on actual facts.”

Food & Water Watch seeks a ban on fracking, which it believes cannot be done safely. The U.S. Department of Energy released a report on Friday that said no chemicals from fracking contaminated drinking water at a western Pennsylvania drilling site that it studied for a year. Other studies have reached different conclusions.

Some state lawmakers are also skeptical. Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat who last week announced her candidacy for governor, has been outspoken in questioning the safety of fracking. Last year, she introduced legislation that would have imposed a legal moratorium on drilling permits.

Others went a step further. Del. A. Shane Robinson, also a Democrat from Montgomery, sponsored legislation to ban fracking entirely. He said this month that he intends to introduce similar legislation in 2014.