Md. lawmakers warned of natural gas drilling woes in Pa.

Former state official cites spills, well contamination, urges caution

February 09, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

A former top Pennsylvania official warned Maryland lawmakers to go slow in allowing drilling for natural gas in Marcellus shale deposits underlying the state's western mountains or risk the environmental and social problems his state is now experiencing from a poorly regulated wave of energy exploration.

John Quigley, who until two months ago was secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, urged members of the House Environmental Matters Committee to "take a deep breath" and require more study of the immediate and long-term consequences of opening Western Maryland to drilling for natural gas using a controversial technique known as hydraulic fracturing. The method, also known as "fracking," involves injecting water and lubricating chemicals thousands of feet underground to fracture rock layers and release gas trapped there.

"We have much to learn about the technique and ample reason for caution," Quigley said during a briefing for lawmakers on Marcellus shale gas exploration in Western Maryland.

At least two bills dealing with hydraulic fracturing have been introduced in the General Assembly. One submitted by Western Maryland legislators would require the Maryland Department of the Environment to adopt new regulations by the end of the year governing fracking, to guard against spills and groundwater contamination. The other measure, offered by Montgomery County lawmakers, would bar such drilling until further study is done and new regulations adopted.

Samson Resources of Tulsa, Okla., and Chief Oil & Gas of Dallas are seeking permits to drill a total of three wells in Western Maryland. But the two companies have signed leases granting them the rights to any gas found under 89,000 acres in Garrett and western Allegany counties, according to Robert M. Summers, Maryland's acting secretary of the environment.

Officials from both companies say they intend to take every precaution in drilling in Maryland.

Summers told committee members that regulators are still reviewing the companies' drilling requests and have no timeline for deciding whether to grant them and under what conditions. He said officials are considering requiring safeguards not currently mandated under state drilling regulations.

"If you have time to do additional studies up front, I would recommend it," said Quigley, now a senior fellow with a Pennsylvania environmental group. The former manager of Pennsylvania's state forests said his state has experienced major problems with contamination of drinking water wells, mainly from improperly drilled gas wells.

In one instance, Quigley said, a poorly drilled well caused natural gas to seep a mile underground and bubble up in the middle of the Susquehanna River. There also have been spills of diesel fuel and of the fluid used in fracking, he said.

While much of the fluid remains underground, some is pumped back out and must be treated because it is very salty and contains minerals and other contaminants from the shale, including radioactive substances.

Well blowouts, explosions and fires also have occurred, and groundwater has been tainted, Quigley said. The contamination stemmed from poor well construction and operations, he said, rather than directly from fracking. Quigley said experts haven't been able to assure him that Pennsylvania's groundwater will remain safe years from now, given the scale of drilling and the fluids being injected into the ground.

Quigley, who served under Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell, noted that his administration moved to hire more inspectors and adopted tough new regulations to address the problems. The new administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is reviewing those rules, but Quigley said there are still gaps in Pennsylvania's oversight, including a failure to levy a severance tax on natural gas extraction to help pay for its regulation and for remedying environmental problems it has caused.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Environmental Matters Committee, said lawmakers see great economic potential in exploitation of the Marcellus shale deposits, which some believe might hold the largest natural gas reserves in the country. The shale deposits cover 95,000 square miles, from New York through Pennsylvania and Western Maryland to West Virginia and Ohio.

But while the gas might be cleaner-burning than coal and may yield income to landowners who lease mineral rights, McIntosh said lawmakers want to be sure Maryland does not experience problems like those in Pennsylvania.

"If we're going to do it," she said, "we want to do it right."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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