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Maryland releases suggested revisions to gas drilling plan

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland will consider revising its proposed regulations for the natural gas drilling known as hydraulic fracturing in an effort to add safeguards for public health and the environment, a state agency announced Wednesday.

The Maryland Department of the Environment released issue papers with tentative suggestions for revisions after an 18-month review of regulations that were initially proposed in January 2015. The department says the 2015 proposal “laid a solid foundation” for ensuring natural gas production in western Maryland can be done “in a manner that respects Maryland’s environment and people.”

Ben Grumbles, the department secretary, said the agency is striving for reasonable and balanced regulations “with stringent but achievable requirements.”

“No group, whether environmental advocates or energy advocates, will be pleased with every restriction or safeguard in our comprehensive proposals,” Grumbles said in a statement. “If no one is entirely happy with the balance we’re seeking, we are probably on the right track. We are committed to listening and to considering all stakeholder suggestions over the next month.”

Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, said the suggestions released Wednesday weaken the initial proposal.

“They are across the board weaker than the previous proposal, and it’s really clear that while the governor says that he cares about protecting the environment and health, it’s clear his proposal is just to get us fracking as soon as possible, regardless of the impact, at any cost,” Tulkin said.

Many provisions in the January 2015 proposal remain unchanged. The department says it is looking at ways to maintain or improve environmental protection and add flexibility where needed, and to deal with some issues not addressed in the 2015 proposal. The agency also said it would focus more on preventing problems at well sites through design standards, instead of overreliance on setbacks and location restrictions.

Three public meetings have been scheduled to discuss the issue papers released Wednesday, including one in Cumberland Wednesday evening. Two are scheduled next week: one in Baltimore on Monday and another in McHenry two days later.

The agency must adopt regulations by Oct. 1, and will propose a revised set of regulations in the Maryland Register ahead of the October deadline. After that, the department will provide an additional 30-day comment period before taking any final action on the regulations.

No drilling would be permitted in Maryland before Oct. 1, 2017.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses pressurized water, sand and chemicals to fracture underground shale and release gas.

Fracking isn’t being done in Maryland now, but a portion of the western side of the state sits atop the Marcellus Shale, which runs underground from New York to Tennessee. Neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania allow fracking, while New York banned the practice due to health concerns.