The Hogan administration is proposing rules that would limit the hurdles that energy companies must overcome before they could start the gas-drilling process known as fracking, while also requiring more protections against groundwater contamination.
In revising a plan crafted by the administration of then-Gov. Martin O'Malley, state environmental regulators on Wednesday endorsed speeding the review of natural gas wells, allowing them closer to homes and waterways and reducing the amount of environmental testing required before drilling could begin.
The state will impose guidelines by Oct. 1, one year before a temporary ban on hydraulic fracturing in Maryland is set to expire.
The proposal pleases neither environmental advocates nor the energy industry. Environmentalists say it would weaken safeguards already deemed insufficient; business leaders say Maryland's regulations would still be the toughest in the country on natural gas extraction.
State environmental regulators say dissatisfaction on both sides is a sign that the plan is fair.
"The market is going to determine whether or not there's interest in drilling and fracking" in Maryland, said Ben Grumbles, Maryland's secretary of the environment. "With the regulations, what we're striving for is a balanced and workable approach that will protect the environment and public health ... and the standards would be achievable."
Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling deep wells and injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to break up rock and release natural gas.
The Marcellus shale rock formation, which extends from New York through Allegany and Garrett counties to Ohio and West Virginia, is believed to be the largest onshore reserve of natural gas in the United States.
But concerns about the risks of groundwater contamination, air pollution and increased earthquake activity prompted O'Malley, a Democrat, and the Democratic-led General Assembly to impose a moratorium on fracking in 2011.
After years of debate and delay, the state is set to begin issuing fracking permits in October 2017.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has said he supports fracking for the jobs it could bring to Western Maryland, as long as it can be done safely.
The O'Malley administration laid out fracking regulations in the final weeks of O'Malley's second term. The Hogan proposal keeps many of O'Malley's regulations intact, but changes several others.
For example, an O'Malley rule would have required 1,000-foot setbacks between fracking operations and buildings in which people live or work. But the Hogan rule says those setbacks should be applied only to the gas wells themselves, not the entire operations. It would also give landowners the option to waive their rights to the setbacks.
Instead of two years of testing to determine baseline levels of water quality and pollution, the state is proposing to collect that data for one year.
Officials also want to remove air-quality testing requirements at fracking sites and rely instead on a state monitor in Frostburg for data on any change in regional air pollution.
The Hogan rules call for simplifying a process to review companies' long-term fracking plans that, as proposed by O'Malley, would have taken seven months.
Grumbles said the aim is to impose regulations that are "workable and achievable."
But those who want to grow the gas industry in Western Maryland said the proposed revisions would not make the state more attractive to drillers.
"These would by far be the toughest and strongest regulations dealing with hydraulic fracturing of anywhere in the country," said Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council. "That doesn't seem to have changed."
The plan would increase the burden on gas drillers to prevent leaks by requiring several more layers of concrete and casing around wells and mandating periodic tests of wells' integrity.
Opponents of fracking said the proposal does little to ease their concerns. Nadine Grabania, a founding member of Citizen Shale, said she has not seen any proof that extra casing around well bores should calm her anxieties.
"This scheme certainly does nothing to enhance my confidence," the Garrett County woman said. "It strips it away."
State officials have scheduled public meetings to discuss the proposals, starting with a gathering Wednesday night in Cumberland. They plan to visit Baltimore on Monday and McHenry next Wednesday.
Grumbles said state officials are open to revising the proposal based on feedback from all parties.
Whether it is revised or not, state lawmakers in Western Maryland expect a fight over fracking in the General Assembly next year.
"I expect that there will be more than one bill put in to regulate or try to totally ban the practice in Maryland," said Del. Wendell R. Beitzel, a Republican who represents Garrett and Allegany counties.
Some already are calling for a permanent ban, and a group of about 50 protested outside the Cumberland meeting, said Thomas Meyer, an organizer for advocacy group Food & Water Watch.
More debate could arise as opponents and supporters of fracking learn more about the details of the state's proposal. Officials did not release a set of four issue papers laying out the plan until a matter of hours before the Cumberland meeting.
Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, said he feared that did not bode well for the process going forward.
"It suggests to me that they're under-resourced," Tulkin said. "If they're under-resourced in creating the regulations, it doesn't give me very much confidence for their ability to implement these regulations."