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Shale gas drilling OK’d, but with strict regulation

Maryland will allow shale gas development, so called fracking, in Western Maryland and elsewhere, but will set strict conditions to check health and environmental impacts from the practice.

The draft final report of the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative panel released Tuesday found the risk of developing the shale gas, by drilling deep underground then sideways for sometimes a mile or more, can be managed by to an acceptable level, with a big if attached.

The fracking, like other industrial practices, could be done “provided that the state rigorously inspects sites and enforces compliance with applicable regulations,” and will adjust policies and regulations in the future to insure the highest level of protection for the public, a Maryland Department of the Environment statement accompanying the report’s release said.

“After three years of exhaustive study, we’ve compiled what many believe to be the gold standard for best management practices in the country,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley.

“This report strikes the right balance, ensuring that Allegany and Garrett counties realize the economic benefits of fracking without sacrificing public health, the environment or the vibrant tourist economy of Western Maryland,” MDE Secretary Robert M. Summers said.

One of the key elements of the regulations will be a Comprehensive Gas Development Plan outlining all potential impacts from development of a drilling pad site for a five year period. Once that is approved a potential driller can then apply for a drilling permit.

But that permit carries its own serious hurdles, like a two-year study of existing conditions at a site to establish a baseline to measure impacts against.

Several other regulations will restrict where drilling could take place, like away from streams, natural areas, private drinking wells and outside any public lands; control air and noise pollution; reduce impact on local roads by limiting truck trips; protect local water levels; and preventing polluted stormwater discharges and spills.

Conservation groups said while the details of such restrictions and the work it took to arrive at them were encouraging, caution abounds.

“We commend the O’Malley administration for this report which, on paper, sets a high bar for protecting our drinking water, other natural resources, and the rural way of life in western Maryland,” said Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Now, the state needs to act quickly to turn these recommendations into regulations.”

She added the key is monitoring and enforcement, and state leaders must commit increase funding to meet that task, noting, “Western Maryland is still scarred from unregulated mining from years ago. We can’t let that happen again.”

Related: Cumberland County approves green projects to fund with Marcellus shale drilling fees

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which has been active against fracking and the construction of a shale gas export facility in Calvert County, said it did not think the draft final report made the case for safe fracking in Maryland.

“CCAN believes that the safest strategy for drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale is to not drill for that gas at all,” said Mike Tidwell, the organization’s director. Instead, he thinks O’Malley’s strict regulatory recommendations should be used by other states already deep into the shale gas boom to help reduce further damage to the environment and public health.

Drilling unlikely soon

Industry officials were glad to see the state move forward after a years-long delay, but said the best practices and regulations would likely keep development at bay for the foreseeable future.

“The regulations being proposed are the very toughest anywhere in the country,” said Drew Cobbs, chief executive officer of the Maryland Petroleum Association.

He said other factors might keep shale gas development in check for the time being. The state’s deposit of shale is called dry gas, without other more valuable components found elsewhere, and hence not as valuable. On top of that the gas market is soft.

“At the moment the price of gas is down, that is a disincentive to go find it, especially since it the cost to do it in Maryland will be more expensive.”

Prost added that regulation should not be an enemy of industry.

“Only 10 years ago some utilities warned that proposed state air pollution laws would cause mass layoffs, higher utility bills, and other drastic results. In reality, electricity prices dropped and most utilities prospered,” she said. “Smart companies see reasonable government regulations as opportunities, not as obstacles.”

The state stands ready to promulgate regulations and scores of “best practices” to protect public health and environment next month. The draft report is open for comment from members of the commission formed to study the issue through Dec. 8.

Unlike the phosphorus pollution rules O’Malley released earlier this month, the new shale gas regulations would not go into effect until after he leaves office Jan. 21, but under Governor-elect Larry Hogan, who has criticized the moves as “midnight regulation.”

 

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