A group of Maryland lawmakers has put on hold the Hogan administration’s plan for regulating “fracking” for natural gas in the state, setting the stage for a debate in Annapolis early next year over whether to permanently ban the hotly disputed drilling practice.

In a letter issued late Thursday, leaders of the Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee informed Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles that they want more time to study his department’s proposal to tighten state rules governing oil and gas exploration and extraction.  The panel's co-chairmen, Baltimore Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg and Montgomery County Sen. Roger P. Manno, both Democrats, asked Grumbles to delay final adoption of the regulation and turn over all comments received after it was proposed in November.

A lawyer for the joint House-Senate committee told members last week that under state law the panel could delay final adoption of the rule until mid-February, unless the administration willingly held off longer. Manno had said before the hearing that a delay would give the General Assembly a chance to vote on whether to impose a permanent ban on fracking before the rules could take effect.

Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson said department officials are reviewing the letter. He had no further comment.

The holdup comes a little more than a week after a packed hearing in Annapolis on the fracking regulation.

The debate over fracking has flared up repeatedly in Maryland over the past several years, pitting those who want the economic benefits of cheap natural gas against those who fear environmental and human health harm from hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping vast quantities of water and chemicals deep into the ground to free up pockets of gas trapped in layers of rock. The western tip of Maryland — Garrett and part of Allegany counties — sits atop a gas-rich Marcellus shale deposit that stretches along the Allegheny Mountains.

A drilling boom to tap the Marcellus gas deposit has swept through neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia, generating economic activity but also stirring complaints about well contamination and other problems. The industry bypassed Maryland, though, as the state took years to study whether to permit wells using horizontal drilling and fracking. Companies at one time had leased the rights to drill on 140,000 acres in Garrett, and applied for five permits, but have since abandoned both.

While some portray the issue as a regional one, others point out that energy production in Western Maryland has broader import, as new pipelines are being built across the state and a liquefied natural gas export terminal is under construction in the Chesapeake Bay.

Opponents of fracking have tried repeatedly over the years to get lawmakers to ban the drilling practice. Every bid failed until 2015, when legislators on both sides of the debate agreed to a temporary moratorium to give the Hogan administration time to complete its review of the O’Malley regulations and propose a new set of rules. That temporary halt is scheduled to end Oct. 1, 2017.

Grumbles told committee members then that the rules MDE had proposed are the most stringent and protective of any state in the nation. He asserted that they offer a “platinum package” of safeguards for public health and the environment, a step up from rules proposed in 2015 by former Gov. Martin O’Malley, who touted his version at the time as the “gold standard” nationwide in regulating fracking.

Grumbles said that his staff had retained more than 95 percent of the regulation put forward by O’Malley, while strengthening several provisions. Among those were a flat prohibition on the groundwater injection of drilling wastewater known as flowback, which has been blamed for a spate of earthquakes in Oklahoma; a requirement that the vertical portion of the gas well get four layers of steel casing and cement, one more than previously called for; and a ban on any drilling in the watershed of Deep Creek Lake, an economically important tourist resort in Garrett County.

Grumbles acknowledged that his staff had also weakened a few provisions, including the required setbacks for well pads from streams. But he insisted the net effect of the latest version would be to provide greater oversight of fracking.

The environment secretary drew applause from many in the audience at the hearing when he acknowledged that “there are those who are convinced that no hydraulic fracturing should occur in Maryland or anywhere else.”

But Grumbles pointed out that the General Assembly, in adopting the temporary drilling moratorium, had directed MDE to come up with regulations that ensured safe gas extraction.

Grumbles also acknowledged a new report by the Environmental Protection Agency on its comprehensive nationwide study of fracking, which concluded that the drilling technique and related processes have contaminated drinking water in some circumstances. But he added that the EPA also had concluded that those risks could be managed.

“Our regulations take the approach that we’re going to add as many regulatory protections as needed to ensure that public health and the environment are protected,” Grumbles said.

Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat, was unpersuaded, raising a series of other concerns. He questioned the deterrence value of penalties laid out in the regulation, which would charge violators up to $1,000 a day, with a maximum of $50,000. Fines that size are just “the cost of doing business” for many oil and gas companies, Morhaim said.

Morhaim also argued that the rules don’t guarantee that doctors like himself can learn what chemicals are in use at drilling sites when they have patients complaining of health problems after being exposed to a fracking operation.

“This needs more work,” he said.

Several other lawmakers joined Morhaim in asking the MDE secretary to look at further strengthening some provisions. The environment secretary said he would consider it, though he said later that would require re-proposing the regulations.

David Vanko, a geology professor and dean at Towson University who had been chairman of the O’Malley administration commission studying drilling safeguards, told the legislative committee that while the Hogan rules were indeed stronger than the preceding set in several regards, they had also reduced the required setbacks for compressor stations and other facilities that accompany a gas well. He also noted that air quality monitoring requirements were pared.

Vanko pointed out that neither O’Malley nor Hogan had acted on one key commission recommendation — to impose a state severance tax on any gas that’s extracted. The funds could help pay for remediation when things go wrong and there’s no company that can be held liable, he noted.

Another member of that commission, former Montgomery County Del. Heather Mizeur, said she’s become convinced it’s impossible to make rules stringent enough to ensure there won’t be problems with fracking or its related activities.

“It’s all an illusion,” Mizeur said. “We cannot guarantee the safety of our water and our environment and our local economies and our public health unless we keep this form of extreme extraction at bay, keep the resource in the ground.”

Health and environmental advocates cited a growing body of research they said showed that hydraulic fracturing and related activities cause air, water and groundwater pollution. They noted that scientists at Johns Hopkins University have done a series of studies that find varied health problems associated with drilling near people’s homes, including premature births, asthma attacks, sinus infections, fatigue and migraine headaches.

Meanwhile, Barbara Beelar, head of the Friends of Deep Creek Lake, challenged Grumbles’ assertion that drilling would be banned in the watershed that hosts many vacation homes. The rules don’t prohibit horizontal drilling into the lake’s drainage basin, she said.

A real estate professional cited studies showing that property values have declined near gas wells. And Ron Gregory, a Rockville resident with a vacation home at Deep Creek Lake, warned that he would sell it if fracking was allowed.

On the other side, leaders of construction unions urged lawmakers to let the regulations take effect. Drilling will bring needed jobs, they said, and the rules appear stringent enough to guarantee workers’ safety.

If anything, the rules are too strict, argued Del. Wendell Beitzel, a Western Maryland Republican. He said the region has accommodated an earlier wave of natural gas drilling, and he called the state’s failure to open the doors to fracking the “poster child” for those critics who contend the state is unfriendly to business.

Bill Bishoff, a Garrett County dairy farmer who is president of the county Farm Bureau, said farmers and other property owners who favor gas drilling support the rules, though they consider them “a bitter compromise.” They’re so stringent they’re likely to discourage the industry from drilling in Maryland for years until the market tightens up and gas prices can cover the higher costs of complying with state rules, he said.

Even so, Bishoff expressed frustration that the debate has dragged on for years.

“It’s a huge game of whack-a-mole,” he concluded. As regulations have been drafted and debated to address concerns, he said, opponents “keep coming up with new concerns.”