Maryland environmental officials are recommending that the state allow fracking for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation in western Maryland as long as the drillers follow rigorous safety guidelines set forth in proposed regulations.

Outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, announced the recommendations after a three-year study on the risks and benefits of drilling in rural Western Maryland, the only part of the state that includes the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation.

The recommendations are part of a final draft report. There is no fracking currently permitted in the state, and it’s unclear when or if fracking will come to Maryland given the more lax regulations in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. New York officials just announced a fracking ban there.

O’Malley called the proposed rules a “gold standard” that would “ensure the highest level of protection for Maryland residents.”

Among the recommendations are:

  • A 2,000-foot setback from private drinking water wells.
  • A prohibition on wells within 450 feet of streams, rivers, wetlands, lakes and 100-year floodplains.
  • A prohibition on surface development on public lands or within 1,000 feet of sensitive wetland habitats
  • Special protections for three drinking water reservoirs
  • A requirement to establish a zero-methane emission and limitations of flaring and engine idling to protect air quality.
  • A requirement that 90 percent of the water taken from streams for the operation is re-used on site so it doesn’t contribute to a waste-disposal problem.
  • A requirement that drillers disclose all of the chemicals used in their operations. Drilling opponents have long complained that the drillers keep these chemicals secret and that when an accident occurs they don’t know what chemicals might get in their water supply.

Republican Gov. Elect Larry Hogan criticized O’Malley for introducing the draft fracking report and regulations on his way out the door. Hogan supports fracking in Maryland and considers it an economic boon.

Environmental groups seemed divided on the report.

“Unconventional gas drilling remains a dirty and dangerous process and these safeguards do not remove the risk it poses to our communities and environment,” the Sierra Club said in its statement on the rules. “The best solution for Maryland families is for our state to stop investing in dirty fuels and instead look to clean, renewable energy options that can power our economy without sacrificing our clean air and water, our health and our climate.”

Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said he applauds Maryland officials for commissioning a robust study that led to strict protections. But he said that instead of using them to establish fracking in Maryland, the neighboring states that have encountered problems from the drilling practice should adopt the Maryland rules to clean up their practices. The commission that wrote Maryland’s report also recommended a severance tax, which would bring in money to help pay to regulate the growing industry.

Pennsylvania, where Marcellus Shale fracking has been under way for seven years, still hasn’t instituted a tax — though it may now with the election of a Democrat, Tom Wolf, to the state’s highest office.

“We don’t believe that the Maryland study proves it can be done safely here,” Tidwell said. “What we do believe is that they are creating strong oversight provisions, and states that are allowing (fracking) should look at them.”

The report was part of a several-stage process known as the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative. The first part looked at establishing a severance tax and a way to assess liability of damages. The second looked at best practices for drilling safely. Another part looked at hazards to public health, while yet another examined economic benefits.

O’Malley’s staff sent its proposal for the new regulations to a legislative committee that reviews new regulations. They are intended to be published in the Maryland Register on Jan. 9, which will trigger a 30-day public comment period. That leaves the decision on whether, and how to drill until after Hogan takes office Jan. 21. In the past, legislators in the General Assembly have also introduced bills that ban fracking, but they have not passed.