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A long-awaited report from two state agencies concludes that fracking could be an economic boost in Maryland but should be tightly regulated. (iStock photo)

Panel backs fracking but with restrictions

O’Malley embraces report; Hogan pledges a review

Maryland should allow natural gas extraction from Marcellus Shale deposits in the western portion of the state but only under strict regulations, according to a report issued by two state agencies.

The release of the report drew criticism from Republican Gov.-Elect Larry Hogan, who said he is concerned Gov. Martin J. O’Malley is trying to propose additional regulations in the waning days of his administration.

Environmental groups praised O’Malley for establishing a study that led to proposed guidelines at least as stringent if not more so compared to other states where fracking is allowed. Still, the groups said the state still should not allow the process.

A spokesman for the oil and natural gas industry said the tough proposed regulations might make fracking too expensive to undertake in Maryland.

The 109-page report released Tuesday by the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources finds that the extraction process, commonly called fracking, presents a number of concerns for the economy, environment and public health but “can be managed to an acceptable level.”

“After three years of exhaustive study, we’ve compiled what many believe to be the gold standard for best management practices in the country,” said O’Malley in a statement. “We’re committed to ensuring that Marylanders have access to the economic opportunities associated with fracking while also putting the most complete practices into place to ensure the highest level of protection for Maryland residents.”

O’Malley, who has championed the use alternative energy sources such as wind and solar, told The Washington Post he could support allowing the process in Maryland under strict guidelines contained in the final report.

The agencies said that even with strict rules and monitoring, some risks would remain.

“Some of the proposed best management practices have not been tested, and although we are confident that they will reduce the risks, some risks will remain, as is the case with all industrial activities,” according to the report. “Best practices and rigorous monitoring, inspection and enforcement can reduce the risks to acceptable levels, but can not completely eliminate all the risks. Because knowledge and technology are continuously advancing, it will be necessary to adaptively manage shale gas development by requiring additional newly developed best management practices that provide improved protection for public health and the environment.”

The report could pave the way for allowing fracking in Garrett and Allegany Counties.

Included among the recommendations are:

• Requiring applicants to provide a detailed five-year comprehensive gas development plan that state officials say would help identify potential adverse impacts that could be mitigated or avoided.

• Well location restrictions, including a 2,000-foot setback from private drinking wells. No well pads within 450 feet of streams, rivers, wetlands, lakes, 100-year floodplains and other aquatic habitats. No surface development within 600 feet of special conservation areas or on public lands or within 1,000 feet of sensitive caves.

• Drinking water and air pollution precautions and monitoring.

• Noise reduction requirements

• Mitigation for potential damage to roadways in the affected areas.

Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council. said the recommendations are likely the strictest in the nation. While Cobbs expressed excitement that there’s finally a report after three years, he said he’s dubious that the recommendations will ever allow fracking in Maryland.

“We’re competing against all these other states,” Cobbs said, adding that Maryland’s Marcellus shale deposits are so-called dry gas deposits while the industry favors wet gas deposits.

“When you add that in and the decreasing cost of the commodity, that makes it difficult for companies to come to Maryland,” Cobbs said.

Additionally, he said, the requirement for a five-year plan, which is the only one of its kind in the country, and a minimum of three years to get through the licensing process will add uncertainty to companies looking to drill.

“In the marketplace, that’s a pretty risky proposition when you have no idea what the cost of the commodity in six months much less three years,” Cobbs said.

State officials hope to take public comment on the final recommendations on Dec. 8 and begin the process of drawing up regulations a week later. Cobbs called the schedule “ambitious.”

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the report contains “groundbreaking and feasible recommendations within this report that should be carefully studied and potentially adopted by neighboring states which – unlike Maryland – have already allowed the active drilling process of fracking for shale gas. Indeed, if fully implemented, many of these ‘best management practices’ would limit the harm already being inflicted nationwide by this controversial gas drilling practice.”

In the end, Tidwell said the report did not make the case for allowing fracking in Maryland.

“But for Maryland, CCAN believes that the safest strategy for drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale is to not drill for that gas at all,” Tidwell said in the statement.” Instead of opening Maryland to the drilling of more fossil fuels, state leaders should continue Governor O’Malley’s proven past commitment to carbon-free wind and solar power. “

Hogan, a Republican who will succeed O’Malley on Jan. 21, said during the campaign that he favors allowing fracking in Western Maryland because of the benefits that would come to an economically challenged area of the state. Gas drilling could create up to 3,600 jobs in Garrett and Allegany counties in the next decade, concluded a Towson University study commissioned by the state.

The governor-elect said during a Tuesday news conference that he had not had the chance to review the newly released report or the recommendations but said O’Malley appears to be rushing to impose as many new regulations as he can before he leaves office in January.

Hogan promised a thorough review of each action taken by O’Malley including the proposed fracking regulations.

“We’re going to take a look at each one of them,” Hogan said. “We’re going to make sure they’re in the best interests of the state and then we’re going to decide what actions to take from there.”