As expected, the O'Malley administration has moved ahead with regulations intended to ensure safe drilling for natural gas in western Maryland. It will be up to Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, though, whether they get imposed.
On Thursday night, the Department of the Environment forwarded its 43-page proposal for new conditions on drilling to a legislative committee that reviews regulations. The move comes less than a week after an advisory commission took public comment on an extensive set of safeguards it recommended before gas exploration and extraction is allowed again.
In its submission to the joint House-Senate Administrative Executive and Legislative Review Committee, state environmental officials said the rules - some stricter than any other state's - are needed to adequately protect against spills, well contamination, air pollution and other impacts on public health, safety and natural resources.
"Fracking," as hydraulic fracturing is commonly known, has reaped a gas bonanza in neighboring states but also stirred controversy over pollution and health issues. Gov. Martin O'Malley ordered a study to determine if and how it could be done in Maryland safely. There has been a de-facto moratorium on drilling for more than three years as the study proceeded.
The regulations hew closely to the recommendations contained in a draft report released Nov. 25 on the advisory commission's findings, said Brigid Kenney, an MDE policy advisor who assisted the panel in its deliberations. At the time, state officials said they planned to propose rules by mid-December.
The proposed regulations would require prospective drillers to adhere to a number of energy industry 'best practices," some of which are only voluntary elsewhere. For instance, companies wanting to drill would need to submit comprehensive plans on where and when they expect to work. They also would have to sample ground water for two years before starting to make it easier to detect any contamination.
The proposed safeguards go too far in some respects for the gas industry, but they also fail to mollify some environmentalists. They were denounced Friday by Food & Water Watch, which along with several other green groups, including the Maryland Sierra Club, want fracking banned altogether.
Barring some hitch, the rules are intended to be published in the Jan. 9 Maryland Register. With at least 30 days required for public comment, the regulations could not be finalized before O'Malley, a Democrat, leaves office Jan. 21. Hogan has said he would review the advisory panel's report. But the incoming Republican governor complained during the campaign that the study had gone on too long, and that western Marylanders were crying out for the jobs gas exploration and development might bring.