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Panel hopes to draft fracking proposal despite ‘gaps in knowledge’

"We've got to get something out," commission chairman says.

Bryan P. Sears//Daily Record Business Writer//August 21, 2014

Panel hopes to draft fracking proposal despite ‘gaps in knowledge’

"We've got to get something out," commission chairman says.

By Bryan P. Sears

//Daily Record Business Writer

//August 21, 2014

State officials and members of a task force studying hydraulic fracturing in western Maryland say they hope to draft a set of best practices by the end of the year even though not every question has been answered.

A final report of the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission could be completed by December, two months later than an already revised timeline. But some members of the commission say there are still questions, including how the process commonly called fracking will affect the tourism industry in Garrett and Allegany counties as well as that region’s under-served health care infrastructure. Some suggested the report should be delayed.

“If the work isn’t done then there’s no reason to force an artificial timeline on the commission and the citizens of Maryland,” said Paul Roberts, a member of the commission and owner of Deep Creek Cellars Winery in Garrett County.

“Let’s get this done right while there is no pressure on us to get it done right now,” Roberts said, noting that the gas industry is not clamoring to drill in western Maryland, which contains less than 2 percent of the Marcellus Shale deposits.

Roberts and other members of the commission are urging additional delays in finalizing a report that could lead to regulations and the first hydraulic fracturing wells in the state. Roberts has asked other commissioners to urge the governor for additional money to study the effect of drilling on the tourism industry.

A report released earlier this year by the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University was unable to quantify the impact.

Daraius Irani, chief economist at the institute and lead author on the report, said it was impossible to identify how fracking in other areas affected tourism at the same time that the economy was in recession.

“The information to get at those numbers just wasn’t granular enough,” Irani said.

Ann Bristow, another member of the commission, said she was concerned that neither the economic impact study performed by Irani nor a University of Maryland study on health risks looked at how fracking would affect the health care system in two of Maryland’s poorest counties.

“This is a very important thing to cost out because it’s ultimately going to cost the counties,” Bristow said. “What we have now is an incomplete picture.”

Brigid Kenney, a senior policy advisory for the Maryland Department of the Environment, acknowledged that not every question has been answered or is likely to be answered in the short term.

“There are gaps in knowledge, there are many other gaps,” Kenney said. “We are using the information we have from the RESI report and national estimates. We can rough out estimates on how big an impact it is going to have on health care.”

Kenney, who will ultimately write the final report based on the work of the commission, said she hopes to have a draft complete by November with a final draft in December, though she called the schedule “somewhat ambitious.”

The commission has already missed a number of deadlines along the way, including the release of a preliminary report that was due last December but not released until the spring. A final report from the commission was scheduled for this month. That deadline was pushed back earlier this year to September or October.

David Vanko, dean of the Jess and Mildred Fisher College of Science and Mathematics and chair of the commission, said he expects the panel will be able to draft recommendations for best practices and regulations despite all that isn’t known.

“Sure there are gaps,” Vanko said. “As time goes on, we’re going to see a lot more questions asked and answered. Any final report that the department produces will be a snapshot. It should be considered a living document.”

Extending the life of the commission, which was created by executive order in 2011 by Gov. Martin J. O’Malley, is not only unnecessary it’s also not feasible, Vanko said.

“We’re all volunteers,” Vanko said. “Most of us don’t have the luxury to say that we’ll continue to do this until we retire. We’ve got to get something out.”


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