Natural Gas Extraction Debate Heats Up at the State House

By Kerry Davis
Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS -- A bill that would essentially impose a hold on natural gas drilling in Western Maryland until further studies are completed will be introduced Thursday in the House of Delegates.

It follows an opposing bill filed Friday that aims to force the Maryland Department of the Environment to approve or deny permits for a type of natural gas drilling known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in Garrett County.

Four applications for fracking permits were filed in October 2009 by Samson Energy, which is now concentrating on one potential drill site in Garrett County. Those were the first permits for natural gas hydraulic fracturing ever filed in the state.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has not granted or denied those applications, citing potential environmental effects.

Robert Summers, the acting-secretary of the department, told the House Environmental Matters Committee that none of the permits have been granted in order to ensure that all of the potential effects on the environment have been explored before allowing drilling, especially after watching ruined well water and other effects from fracking in Pennsylvania.

The former secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources cautioned the committee to proceed carefully with fracking and learn from his state's mistakes.

"It's invasive, there's noise pollution, there's air pollution," said John Quigley, the former secretary from Pennsylvania.

"There are threats to surface and ground water. It needs to be studied more," he said.

But Delegate Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett, believes there has been enough studying. He filed a bill that would force the Maryland Department of the Environment to either approve or deny those applications.

Among other things, the bill would require the department explain the requirements it wants companies to meet when filing for applications. The deadline for the department to submit the guidelines would be Dec. 31.

Garrett and Alleghany counties are part of the Marcellus Shale formation that runs under Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, West Virginia and Maryland. The formation is thought to contain the largest natural gas store in the United States and is located about a mile below the surface.

The natural gas is reached by a process of drilling that pumps water mixed with chemicals into the rock formation, releasing the gas.

Beitzel said in part he's sponsoring the bill because his own land in Garrett County is above the Shale formation.

"I also own land under which it's located and I sought to acquire a lease on it in the past to allow a company to extract a natural gas," Beitzel said.

Beitzel said he and others in Garrett County want the drilling to be done in a safe manner, but that it's time for the state to approve or deny permits.

Another company, Chief Oil and Gas, filed applications for drilling at two sites in 2011.

A representative from Chief Oil and Gas attended the briefing in the House Environmental Matters Committee Wednesday. Chief has natural gas wells in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"In almost every state there are people who choose to exaggerate the risks and become obsessed (with) opposing it," said Terry Bossert, vice-president of Government and Regulatory Affairs for Chief. "But to be fair, there are people in the industry that like to make believe that there aren't any risks (in drilling for natural gas). The issue is balance," he said.

Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, will file a bill called the "Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Act of 2011" on Thursday. The Senate bill matching it was filed Friday.

Mizeur said it's not that she is opposed to natural gas drilling but that more testing and guidelines should be put in place to ensure that property values and environmental concerns are completely addressed. For example, the bill would require that a company submit an environmental assessment with its application.

"There's no reason to hurry," Mizeur said. "Gas has been under the shale for millions of years. We now have a method of extracting it, but that doesn't mean we have to hurry and do it."

The Environmental Protection Agency released a draft plan this week for studying the effects of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater.