O'Malley administration officials told state lawmakers Wednesday that they need up to two years more to study the risks of drilling for natural gas in Marcellus shale deposits in Western Maryland before deciding whether to let the controversial practice go forward.
Testifying before the House Environmental Matters Committee, Robert M. Summers, Maryland's acting secretary of the environment, said he and other administration officials plan a comprehensive evaluation of the potential health and environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing, the technique used to extract gas from shale layers far underground.
"We want to make sure we thoroughly understand what we're doing, what the consequences would be, before we proceed," Summers said. He and John R. Griffin, Maryland's secretary of natural resources, spoke in favor of a bill that would impose a temporary moratorium on drilling until adequate safeguards are in place to prevent contamination of drinking-water wells, pollution of mountain streams and other problems.
The bill's co-sponsors, Democratic Dels. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County and Marvin E. Holmes Jr. of Prince George's, said that after consulting with the O'Malley administration, they would submit an amendment setting a July 2013 deadline for completing the study.
"It definitely is just a pause. It's not a ban," Mizeur said. "We feel we need that much time to make sure this is done right."
The administration's stance frustrated industry officials at the hearing, as well as farmers and officials from Garrett and Allegany counties, who appealed for an expedited review by regulators.
They noted that the Maryland Department of the Environment has been studying the issue for more than a year, since Samson Resources of Tulsa, Okla., applied in November 2009 for permits to drill. Officials have said since then that they've been reviewing the application and studying what's been happening with hydraulic fracturing, known as "fracking," in other states.
Energy experts have said there's enough natural gas in the shale deposits under Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Ohio and Western Maryland to supply the nation's needs for 15 to 20 years. More than 2,000 wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania, and exploration is proceeding in West Virginia.
In hydraulic fracturing, up to a million gallons of fluid, composed mostly of water and sand, are pumped thousands of feet into the ground to fracture rock layers so the gas can be easily extracted. The fluid contains chemicals, including toxins and carcinogens. Some fluid is recovered, which may also contain toxic minerals and naturally occurring radioactive compounds.
In Pennsylvania and other states, residential wells have been contaminated and streams polluted with fluid that spilled or leaked after being pumped out of the wells.
Environmental groups, trout fishermen and a procession of Western Maryland residents echoed the call for a long, careful study, warning that some of the state's most pristine streams and a center of its tourist industry are at risk if drilling goes awry. .
Some also warned that the area's rural roads could not handle the thousands of truck trips that would be needed to haul water to drilling sites and to haul tainted drilling fluid away.
Samson Resources and Chief Oil & Gas, a Dallas-based gas company, have signed leases to drill on a combined 93,000 acres in Garrett and western Allegany counties. Chief recently applied for permits to drill two wells in Garrett. Garrett officials, though, estimate that drilling rights might have been leased or sold on as much as one-fourth of the land in the county.
Nevertheless, the commissioners of Allegany and Garrett backed a competing bill submitted by their legislator, Republican Del. Wendell R. Beitzel, which would require state environmental officials to propose regulations for hydraulic fracturing in Marcellus shale by the end of the year.
"The county commissioners want to see this done right and under best management practices," said Gregan T. Crawford, chairman of Garrett County's Board of Commissioners. Setting a year-end deadline, he urged, would not "allow this to languish indefinitely."
Terry R. Bossert, Chief's vice president for government and regulatory affairs, warned that a prolonged delay could have consequences, since many of the leases it holds expire in the coming year. And while drilling is not permitted, he said, the industry won't be paying royalties to residents who have leased their land, and Garrett County won't receive needed tax revenue.