The debate over “fracking” has begun anew in Maryland.
State regulators recently announced they were beginning to draft new regulations for extracting natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, which they plan to release this summer. That triggered an outcry, signaling a likely showdown early next year over whether to lift Maryland’s moratorium on the controversial drilling process or impose a permanent ban.
Ben Grumbles, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, told the crowd at a public meeting Monday night in Baltimore that his staff is “striving for reasonable and balanced approaches” to regulating natural gas extraction. But the overwhelming reaction from the crowd of more than 120 people present at MDE headquarters was not to bother — they don’t believe fracking can be done safely, and they don’t want it in the state, period.
“This is absurd! You should be ashamed of yourselves,” declared Crede Calhoun, 58, of Friendsville. His town is in Garrett County, which overlies part of the gas-rich Marcellus shale rock formation beneath the Appalachian Mountains. The mayor and council there are weighing a ban on drilling within town limits which, if adopted, would make it the second municipality in Garrett to do so.
Fracking - the general term for drilling horizontally deep underground, then injecting liquid at high pressure into rocks to force fissures and extract oil or gas -- has divided western Maryland. Proponents think it could bring jobs and boost the economically depressed region. Critics, pointing to problems with it in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia, fear it could foul the air and water and hurt the region’s tourism and outdoor recreation industries. New York state has banned the practice out of concern for its risks.
Grumbles explained that MDE intends to stick largely with drilling rules proposed last year by former Gov. Martin O’Malley. O’Malley had touted his plan, produced after a five-year hold on fracking to study the issue, as the most stringent in the nation and a “gold standard” for ensuring it could be done safely.
But state lawmakers responded by imposing a moratorium on any drilling until October 2017, to give them a chance to review any regulations before they could take effect.
The MDE secretary said his staff is weighing making the previously proposed rules stricter in a couple instances, while easing several others. The goal, as a PowerPoint presentation put it, would be “protection of public health, safety and natural resources and allow for responsible development of the State’s natural gas resources.”
In a series of “issue papers” posted on MDE’s website, state regulators said they are looking at requiring more steel casing on wells to prevent methane leakage or groundwater contamination. They also are considering relaxing requirements for air and water monitoring and for setbacks of drilling operations from drinking-water wells and streams.
MDE officials said monitoring requirements no longer need to be so strict because of additional air and water data they have gathered while the moratorium was in effect. And setbacks would not need to be as great, they added, if additional safeguards are required at wells to prevent leakage.
Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said that even with the easing of some requirements, they would remain among the strictest in the country.
“They’re still going to be much tougher than Pennsylvania, West Virginia, or anyone around us, that’s for sure,” he said.
But speaker after speaker at Monday night’s meeting questioned whether any regulations could be tough enough to prevent harm to people or the environment.
Ray Kemble, a resident of Dimock in northeastern Pennsylvania, where fracking stirred a flurry of complaints about well contamination, held up a bottle of murky water he said came from his well and warned Marylanders not to open the door to the industry.
While the Marcellus shale region in Maryland is mostly outside the Chesapeake Bay watershed, several speakers argued it’s an issue that affects the whole state. They said other gas deposits in central and southern Maryland could one day be targeted for drilling. And a liquefied natural gas processing plant is being built now at Cove Point on the Bay in Calvert County to load the fuel onto tankers for export, which opponents worry could buoy the market and lead to more drilling.
More than 100 environmental, health and other organizations have signed on to a campaign to ban fracking in the state. Several of their representatives weighed in at the meeting, pointing to studies linking gas extraction elsewhere with health, social and environmental problems. To ease the global threat of climate change, they said, Maryland and the nation need to stop relying on natural gas and other fossil fuels and focus on developing renewable energy.
State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who attended Monday’s meeting, drew cheers when he vowed to introduce a bill to ban fracking if MDE goes ahead with regulations. Zirkin and others have pushed such legislation before, without success.
Dale Sams, who lives in Cumberland, contended western Maryland has already suffered enough from industries extracting its natural resources.
“We’ve been mining coal for 100 years,” he said, “and we’re still paying to clean up the aftermath of that ... The only gold standard is to ban fracking in Maryland.”
Another public meeting is scheduled at 6 p.m. Wednesday (June 29) at Garrett College in McHenry. MDE officials said they would review comments from the meetings and any received in writing by July 18 before proposing new regulations later this summer.