By MATT MCNAB
TAMPA, Fla.—A nuclear energy expert from Maryland found himself under fire from some members of the state's Republican delegation during his Monday breakfast speech after criticizing natural gas fracking and its viability as a primary energy source.
Donald R. Hoffman, president and chief executive officer of Excel Services Corporation in Rockville, criticized the lack of research done in local areas before fracking, an unconventional method of gas extraction that involves drilling horizontally into a shale layer and injecting a pressurized mixture of water, sand and chemicals to crack open the rock, releasing trapped gas.
Hoffman contrasted that with the extensive planning done before nuclear plants are approved.
He also characterized the fracking process as under-regulated and unsafe to the surrounding area, and said it doesn't create enough jobs when compared with nuclear plants, which drew criticism from some members of the Maryland delegation.
"There's a huge amount of natural gas in this country and with fracking, we know how to get it out of the ground," former Talbot County Republican Party Chairman Kate Boland said. "It creates jobs. North Dakota and Pennsylvania have low unemployment rates because of energy production. I'm not against nuclear energy at all, but it's not helpful to talk down natural gas."
Alternate delegate Jamie Falcon agreed with Boland's analysis.
"It seemed like his talk should have been more comprehensive. You should be promoting your energy source, not knocking the other ones," Falcon said.
Hoffman clarified his comments after hearing from Boland and delegate Greg Fox, who both disagreed with his stance. He said while natural gas is flush in areas like Pennsylvania, and he's supportive of other forms of energy, nuclear energy permits a larger and faster output than natural gas or other alternatives.
Hoffman said two approved nuclear power plants, one in Georgia and one in South Carolina, will create at least 42,000 new jobs, and up to 160,000.
Hoffman said those two plants are the only approved plants in the United States over the next decade, and a fraction of the 30 China plans to build over that same period. Hoffman said three factors have caused a reluctance to approve and use nuclear power, despite the energy source accounting for 20 percent of U.S. energy output.
"There's a severe cost to build the facility before it starts to make money," he said. "Almost $5 (billion) or $6 billion must be invested before the plant is operational. Past incidents also contribute to it. Even after studies showed an incident like the one in Japan wouldn't happen here, the public is uneasy about them.
"Lobbyists are also campaigning telling people that solar power and wind power are the answer," Hoffman said. "Sure, they're environmentally great, but it's just not possible for them to be a primary source of energy."
Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties in western Maryland are part of the Marcellus Shale Formation, which is estimated to have the largest onshore reserve of shale natural gas in the country.
In June, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed an executive order to examine the environmental impacts of drilling and extracting the natural gas. It is expected to be completed by 2014.
Maryland has just one nuclear power plant—the Calvert Cliffs plant on the Chesapeake Bay's western shore, but at-large delegate and Maryland House of Delegates member Kelly Schulz, R-Frederick, called nuclear power "something we have to take a look at."
"I'm on the energy committee, and we're focused on finding effective, efficient alternative energy sources, and nuclear power is just that," she said. "We have to take a good, qualified look at it."
Hoffman's speech to the Maryland delegation isn't his only planned address this week. He will speak to the Alaska and Virginia delegates, and possibly several others about nuclear energy.