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Ben Grumbles speaks in an interview in 2015 at the Maryland Department of the Environment offices in the Montgomery Park office complex, Baltimore.

State review of proposed fracking rules may stretch into 2016

State regulations for fracking in western Maryland may not be ready until sometime next year, according to Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles.

Grumbles, in an interview, said the agency continues to review comments on regulations proposed under former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley, and he laid out a timeline that suggests the agency may re-open the regulations to adjustments and not propose a final version until sometime in 2016. And while Grumbles downplayed the length of time needed, the timeline appears to dovetail with legislation imposing a moratorium on the controversial natural gas extraction process that was passed by the General Assembly earlier this year.

“I don’t think you can make any inferences,” Grumbles said. “I think the governor is still deciding what he wants to do. From my perspective, we’ll continue to do what we’re planning to do and that is review the comments that we got and look at the different options that have been suggested about revisiting or restrengthening items or adding items to the proposed regulations.”

The legislature this year passed a bill that imposes a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. The bill requires that Grumble’s agency finalize regulations by Oct.1 2016. No company could begin drilling in the state until Oct. 1, 2017. The bill also requires that the state produce separate health and economic impact studies that go beyond what was part of the three years of work conducted by O’Malley’s advisory commission.

Hogan has until May 29 to decide to sign, veto or allow the legislation to become law without his signature. He has not stated his intentions.

“I don’t want to prejudge any decisions that are going to need to be made,” Grumbles said. “What we’re focused on doing is continuing to review the extensive number of comments — supporters and opponents to the regulations and the concept of hydraulic fracturing in western Maryland.”

Grumbles said he and his agency will be spending the next few months reviewing comments, meeting with experts and traveling to western Maryland to learn more about the area and the issue.

“I don’t know how much time we’re going to need,” Grumbles said. “We want to do it right. The topic  continues to generate significant discussion and debate.”

Grumbles called the work on the regulations a priority but it’s one of many facing the new secretary over the next several months.

During that time, Grumbles and the agency are also charged with developing regulations for goals to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. The administration enacted regulations to deal with emissions for 2015 but the next step would establish goals through 2020. Grumbles said he hopes to complete that work by the fall.

Additionally, Grunbles chairs the state Commission on Climate Change. That commission is responsible for making recommendations to the governor and General Assembly regarding the state’s greenhouse gas emissions laws that expire next year unless lawmakers take action.

The commission has a “fairly rigorous schedule” and is expected to deliver separate reports in September and October, he said.

Additionally, the agency is working with New York and Pennsylvania on reducing the flow of nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay at the same time it will begin administering newly revised stormwater management laws. Those rules require the state’s most populous counties to provide plans on how each intends to meet federal pollution remediation and reduction requirements.

All of those issues will compete for time as Grumbles and his agency complete the review and possibly revise the proposed fracking regulations.

“I think it’s a reasonable time frame,” Grumbles said of the roughly 17 months between now and the deadline set in the recently passed bill. “I know I’ll want to go out and do some visits and spend some more time in western Maryland.”