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A natural gas well in West Virginia. (AP Photo/David Smith)

Maryland headed toward toughest fracking laws in the nation

An effort to draft best practices for drilling of Marcellus Shale deposits in Western Maryland could result in some of the strictest fracking regulations in the country.

It’s an outcome that some state officials and gas industry representatives agree is the likely direction of the state’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission. The nearly 3-year-old panel is expected to finalize a report containing recommendations for best practices and regulations related to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Garrett and Allegany counties.

“We’re concerned we’ll end up with some of the strictest regulations in the state,” said Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council.

Fracking — the technical term is “hydraulic fracturing” — is a powerful drilling process in which millions of gallons of water containing toxic chemicals are used to fracture rocks, freeing up the gas inside. Critics say fracking poisons water supplies and causes other environmental problems. Fracking supporters tout its economic benefits and say effective environmental safeguards can be set up.

Currently, there are no companies actively seeking permits to drill for gas in the shale deposits in Western Maryland. The commission is charged with producing best practices used in other states where hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits is done, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“Some of the recommendations in the draft go way beyond (current best practices),” Cobbs said. “The commission is making things up, creating things as we go. In some cases, there really are not regulations like that anywhere in the country.”

Some draft recommendations on water testing and setbacks from sources of water for public drinking and exploratory wells are setting new standards.

“What we’re calling for now is the tightest in the nation,” said Christine Conn, director of strategic land planning for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “These setbacks are very restrictive.”

Currently, the setback for drilling wells recommended by state officials is 1,000 feet from sources of public drinking water and 2,000 feet from private drinking wells, but that can be reduced to as low as 1,000 feet if the company can show the drinking water well is not downhill from the fracking well.

Setbacks in West Virginia, for example, are under 1,000 feet.

Conn said the report remains in flux as health, economic and risk assessments are completed. Even after those are completed, she said, there is still room to discuss and change recommendations based on science and evidence.

“Right now we’re trying to develop the best suite of standards,” Conn said.

But not everyone thinks the standards go far enough — particularly when it comes to issues related to protecting drinking water.

“That’s what I hear the most concern about,” said Paul Roberts, a citizen and member of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission and the owner of Deep Creek Cellars winery in Friendsville. “That’s what my neighbors are talking about because it’s what we’ve been hearing from neighboring states.”

Roberts said there is scientific evidence showing the importance of a setback nearly four times greater — about one kilometer or 3,280 feet — than what is currently proposed.

Roberts said anything less than a kilometer poses the risk of contaminating drinking water and makes it impossible to sell affected property.

“It’s not appropriate or fair to endanger my family or our way of life because (the governor) feels it’s something they want to do or it’s a setback (regulators) think the industry will accept,” Roberts said.