No 'best practices' could guarantee Maryland's safety if fracking is allowed [Letter]

Mizeur and other fracking commission members say "best practices" are an illusion.

Your editorial of Oct. 4 regarding the release by Maryland environmental regulators of a "risk analysis" for potential shale gas development did not note that the risk analysis was conducted before release in September of Maryland's health study. It showed significant risks to public health in seven of eight categories.

Both reports evaluate hazards and either suggest or claim that regulations based on best practices promulgated by the Maryland Department of the Environment will mitigate those risks. There are three significant concerns about the best practices that raise doubts about this assertion:

•Few best practices are based in science.

•The best practices are suggestions, not regulations, and there is no guarantee that they will become regulatory requirements.

•Regulations may not be fully enforced.

Few best practices are based in science because very little research exists supporting them. The governor's executive order sets an appropriately high standard: "Best practices means methods and techniques that have consistently shown results superior to those achieved by other means, and which are used as benchmarks."

Consistency and superiority are measurement-based concepts, and supporting data from industry is lacking. If industry had empirical support for their claims that they can extract and develop natural gas without harm to humans, animals and the environment, we feel certain they would have shared it by now.

Another impediment to research is the industry "practice" of settling claims of harm out of court with non-disclosure clauses.  Health professionals and researchers who documented evidence in these cases typically also cannot disclose their findings. 

Without such documentation, how do we determine true risk levels and develop better practices?  Gas developers in Pennsylvania have maintained that their drilling practices do not cause harmful water contamination.  However, after significant public pressure, Pennsylvania regulators finally confirmed 243 drinking wells contaminated by gas well development, and that state's environmental department is finally investigating that data set.

In Pennsylvania, toxins associated with human harm were found in a residential well, attributed to a nearby gas well.  This data set is expected to expand, and there will be further chemical analyses of contaminated wells.  With more knowledge of these contamination events, we can evaluate just how protective a current industrial "best practice" might be.

Second, Maryland's best practices are a long way from becoming regulations or statutes. There will be much lobbying by industry to water them down because of claims they are too stringent and costly. 

Two representatives of the natural gas industry have told the governor's commission that the industry is not likely to come to Maryland because they expect our regulations will be too extreme.  It is clear to us that should the industry decide to come to Maryland, it will only follow an aggressive lobbying campaign to weaken the rules.

Natural gas prices are very low right now, and there is little pressure for development in Maryland.  This can, however, change.  If the Marcellus or Utica shale underlying Maryland becomes lucrative domestically or an attractive product to ship out of Cove Point, what political pressure might industry bring to bear on the writing of regulations or legislation?

Finally, there's the age-old regulatory problem of enforcement.  In the Maryland Department of the Environment's own words, best practices "that require reports or documentation, suggest limits to certain activities, and/or recommend certain measures are generally expected to have limited effectiveness because they are not prescriptive and can be difficult to verify or enforce."

MDE has reduced capacity to enforce current regulations due to budgetary constraints.  MDE and the Department of Natural Resources have not demonstrated that permitting fees will be sufficient to fund the robust enforcement that the numerous best practices would require.

Though we would all like to think that Maryland enforcement would be better than what we see happening in adjacent states, humans are humans, and if the forces driving poor oversight in those states are brought to bear in Maryland, we should expect to see the same results.

In order to protect Maryland, MDE should use the "precautionary principle."  Where there are threats of serious or irreversible harm, lack of scientific evidence should not be viewed as lack of harm.  MDE should insist on delaying shale gas development in Maryland until scientifically supported practices are known to reduce harm.

Ann Bristow, Heather Mizeur, Paul Roberts and Nick Weber

The writers are members of the Governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.

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