Western Maryland may never rival Texas as a fuel producer, but geologists at Fox Gas & Oil Co. believe there are significant deposits of natural gas some 10,000 feet under the rugged mountains of Allegany County.
And that's where it's likely to stay unless Maryland breaks a bureaucratic logjam that has frustrated Fox's drilling plans at a time when demand and prices for natural gas are unprecedented.
Over the past eight years, Fox has sunk more than $3 million into efforts to tap into the state's reserves of what is considered the least polluting of the fossil fuels. But Cathy A. Kirsch, land agent for the Washington, Pa.-based company, says getting answers out of state officials has been more difficult than getting gas out of the ground.
"You would think with the gas crisis and the high prices we're experiencing right now, Maryland would want to support us," Kirsch said. "It's the cleanest fuel we have."
Kirsch said the Department of Natural Resources is stalling on its request for a drilling permit and the lieutenant governor's office has snubbed the company's efforts.
Spokesman Chuck Porcari turned down repeated requests for an interview with Natural Resources Secretary Sarah Taylor-Rogers, saying she was unavailable.
"We're in a pre-decisional mode," Porcari said. "This is a precedent-setting decision, so that's why we're moving methodically."
Frustrated with the department's methodical pace, Fox recently turned to Western Maryland legislators to plead its case.
As a result, lawmakers have summoned DNR officials to explain why Maryland is a nonplayer in the recent resurgence of Appalachian natural gas production. Company and state officials will brief the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday on the status of drilling efforts.
"In light of the high cost of natural gas, I'd like to see why we're dragging our feet," said committee Chairman Thomas L. Bromwell.
Kirsch said the problem is not that Maryland says no to requests for drilling permits but that it seems to have no guidelines at all.
For now, Fox has one operating gas well in Maryland, one it drilled in 1994 in the Allegany County hamlet of Barrelville.
Since then, the pace of gas production in Maryland has been frozen.
Last year the state issued not a single gas drilling permit, while Pennsylvania issued 706. Unlike Maryland, Pennsylvania allows drilling on public lands.
Ted Kopas, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said the state has had few problems with natural gas companies.
"Our recent experience with natural gas wells and drilling have been mostly positive," he said.
Maryland's apparent reluctance to allow drilling comes at a time when some of its businesses are struggling with a lack of natural gas supplies.
David Rost, president of Mt. Savage Refractories in Frostburg, had to close the ceramic brick factory in December and lay off 47 workers because his natural gas distributor could no longer supply fuel.
Rost said a steady local supply would help avert such shutdowns and cost less than importing gas from faraway locations.
"Every other state in the country is trying to develop natural gas resources but Maryland," Rost said.
Some environmentalists expressed concern about natural gas drilling on or near state lands.
"It seems it can be a potentially harmful process. There's a lot of sensitive areas out there," said Susan Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
But clean-air advocates also say that natural gas causes far less pollution than either coal or oil and that extracting it is less intrusive than oil drilling or coal mining.
"The potential for disaster is not as great as when you're extracting liquids," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a leader of the Assembly's environmentalists. The Montgomery County Democrat noted that Maryland bans drilling in the Chesapeake Bay but allows it in other parts of the state if it meets environmental criteria.
Western Maryland legislators say the state's failure to issue drilling permits has less to do with actual environmental damage than fear of a political backlash.
"I think the environmentalists have the hierarchy of this state government so psyched out they're afraid to do anything," said Sen. John Hafer, a Republican who represents Garrett and Allegany counties.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said he, too, has spoken with Taylor-Rogers without getting anywhere.
"The Glendening administration apparently just doesn't want it to happen," the Cumberland Democrat said. "I don't see any environmental problems with it myself."
Del. George Edwards, a Garrett County Republican, said there's a misconception that natural gas wells have serious adverse impacts on the environment.
"People think you're going to drill a hole and the whole Earth's going to get sucked down in it," he said.