Md. environment chief calls for federal oversight of fracking

Summers says state will tread carefully on hydraulic fracturing

April 12, 2011|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — Maryland's top environment official told a Senate panel Tuesday that the federal government should be more involved in regulating the natural gas drilling procedure known as hydraulic fracturing.

Robert M. Summers, acting secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said he supported legislation in Congress that would increase federal oversight of the process and require companies to disclose the chemicals they use.

The Maryland General Assembly rejected legislation this year that would have allowed hydraulic fracturing — also known as "fracking" — in the state. Lawmakers left Annapolis this week without approving a proposed two-year, industry-funded study of the impact.

"We need the federal government to take a more active role," Summers told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. He said state officials continue to review applications from two companies that want to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus shale deposits of Western Maryland.

"While we believe states should retain the responsibility and should be able to enact more stringent requirements if they desire," he said, "the federal regulatory floor will ensure at least basic protections of public health."

Energy experts that predict there's enough natural gas under Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Ohio and Western Maryland to supply the nation's needs for 15 to 20 years. Those resources are in particularly high demand now, given wild swings in prices for other fuels.

But to extract the natural gas through fracking, companies use millions of gallons of liquid that can become contaminated in the process. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and local agencies are studying how the liquid is being treated and whether it has polluted residential wells and streams in other states.

Summers told the committee that the procedure "will not start in Maryland until we know whether, and how, it can be done safely."

Regulators from other states told the Senate panel that federal involvement is not necessary because local officials have stepped up oversight on their own.

"Our record is clear that state regulation is the best way" to monitor environmental effects, said Jeff Cloud, a vice chairman of the commission that regulates utilities in Oklahoma. "After all, and not to be trite, we drink the water, too."

Steve Trujillo, operations manager for Samson Resources of Tulsa, Okla., which submitted one of the drilling applications pending in Maryland, said Tuesday he does not expect Western Maryland to have the vast reserves of gas that other states have.

"We believe strongly that we can develop this resource in a very safe manner," Trujillo said. "It's on the fringe, not on the sweet spot, and that's why I strongly believe they could in the interim study this as much as they want but at the same time [approve] a few permits."

The Marcellus shale is a 400-million-year-old sedimentary rock formation that contains natural gas reserves. It approaches the surface in parts of New York and Pennsylvania, where drilling is more active, but elsewhere descends to more than a mile and a half below the ground.

"We need to get this right," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, who co-chaired the hearing. "We need to figure out how we can get the natural gas that is plentiful in the United States in an environmentally safe way."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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