Studying Fracking to Death May Give Md.'s Environment Valuable Protections

Environmental Commentary by Tim Rowland

Two years ago, a real estate listing for a choice parcel of property in the Allegheny Mountains pointed out a dichotomy that’s almost as old as the hills themselves.

“…(T)he property is home to several black bear, bobcats, squirrels, turkeys, and whitetail deer. It is also located within Marcellus and Utica Shale areas…providing a great investment opportunity,” the ad read.

Well, maybe.

New drilling techniques that use fracking—the use of chemicals, sand and millions of gallons of pressurized water to blast oil and gas from rock — isn’t as defacing as mountaintop removal. But it is not terribly conducive to bears, bobcats or tourists, all important to the environmental and economic health of the hills.

The fracking debate is now likely to heat up in Maryland, with the election of a new governor, Republican Larry Hogan, who has said the state is “behind the curve” when it comes to extracting gas from the western reaches of the state.

Marcellus Drilling News, a fracking advocate, wrote that “we won’t pretend that it’s a slam-dunk now for Marcellus Shale drilling in the state. It’s not. However, drilling in the Marcellus is a lot closer to reality than it was before Nov. 4th.”

With no legislative restrictions against fracking on the books, energy companies can drill if they obtain a permit from the appropriate state agencies. Or they will be able to if Hogan lifts a moratorium on fracking enacted by current Gov. Martin O’Malley.

In the campaign, Hogan said O’Malley was studying the issue to death, an accusation to which the O’Malley administration might plead guilty as charged. For three years, a task force has wandered the state and gathered information and public comment. It has released two of three scheduled reports, basically saying that fracking has environmental risks, although noting that there is little probability of catastrophic consequences such as earthquakes (earthquakes reported in the West are associated not with the drilling process itself, but with the disposal of waste water injected deep into the earth.)

Environmentalists believe the bloom is off the fracking rose, contending that fracked wells are exhausted much earlier than predicted, and that thin profit margins on the expensive process are forcing drillers into dangerous shortcuts.

Still, there’s little denial that when fracking comes to town, the cash begins to flow. In pristine but economically depressed areas, the money looks awfully good, even if the boom is not open-ended. And it’s hard to tell the residents of these communities that they should reject lucrative jobs for the benefit of vacationers.

This isn’t to say that fracking is universally welcomed in mountain locales. Only two Maryland counties — westernmost Garrett and Allegany — sit atop Marcellus shale. These counties have become a playground for the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan areas, and on Fridays, Interstate 70 is packed with cars affixed with kayaks, bicycles and skis heading west for a weekend of recreation in the mountains, lakes and wild rivers. It’s a lifeline western counties can’t afford to lose

And while fracking might not be an environmental disaster, neither is it compatible with outdoor recreation. Big diesel drilling engines howl as they bore into the earth; sediment from 5-acre drilling pads erodes into streams, endangering delicate trout populations; and tanker truck after tanker truck careen down narrow mountain roads to meet the well’s insatiable thirst for water.

But, and perhaps this was the intent, O’Malley’s moratorium has allowed Maryland to watch, and learn the pitfalls from, other states that enthusiastically embraced fracking, such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

From them, we have learned that fracking can be done safely, but conditionally: Considerable setback regulations are important; wastewater polluted with fracking chemicals should be treated and reused in a closed loop rather than injected into the earth for disposal or pumped into open lagoons; fracking pads should be terraced to keep sediment from running into streams; and the chemicals used by drillers should be made public (the industry has fiercely resisted this) so that if they show up in residential wells the company can be held liable.

Maryland will likely have time to enact careful regulations, because environmentalists have found an unlikely ally in oil drillers themselves, who have become so productive that energy prices have plummeted.

When oil topped $100 a barrel, fracking became cost-effective, but when the price has dropped to $80, fracking lost its luster.

So even if Hogan hangs out the Open for Business sign in the fracking world, at this point he is unlikely to find any takers. But, of course, what goes down must come up, so sensible rules need to be in place, because natural gas prices will one day rebound and, as one state official said, “The gas in the ground in Western Maryland isn’t going anywhere.”

Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author of “Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering.” Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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