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News Opinion Editorial

Marcellus shale: What took millions of years to create merits a few years of study

The reaction from the petroleum industry to the notion that Maryland ought to look before it leaps into natural gas drilling was swift and predictable: Maryland is in danger of falling behind the pace set by other states in tapping the lucrative Marcellus Shale deposits.

To that one can only reply, "Good."

A great deal of caution is in order when it comes to the controversial hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process and the long list of possible adverse impacts from toxic ground water pollution to well blowouts and methane leaks. The executive order signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley this week seeks not to ban natural gas drilling but to fully assess its impact, both positive and negative.

How often have states and local governments been lured by the siren's song of resource exploitation and the jobs and economic opportunities that come with it only to discover — too late — the disastrous strings attached? The nation has no shortage of Superfund toxic waste sites to give testament to the perils of unregulated industry.

What the governor has authorized is essentially the same mandate that passed the House of Delegates earlier this year but on which the Senate failed to act: A thorough investigation of what natural gas production in Western Maryland might mean for the region and the state.

Make no mistake, the extensive Marcellus Shale deposit could prove extraordinarily helpful in providing the nation with natural gas, a cleaner burning alternative to other fossil fuels. And Western Maryland could certainly use the potential economic boost.

But there are numerous red flags to consider. Pennsylvania's recent experience, chronicled in the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Gasland," ought to give pause. Gov. Tom Corbett is pushing for tougher environmental regulation to monitor drilling more closely, increase the penalties given companies that violate the law, and protect drinking water supplies.

It's clear, however, that some damage has been done by the more than 3,000 wells in that state alone. Toxic runoff may already be headed to Maryland's waters by way of the Susquehanna River, which flows into theChesapeake Bay.

Maryland has much to learn from Pennsylvania's apparent missteps — assuming that they are corrected. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's decision last month to pursue a lawsuit against Chesapeake Energy, one of the natural gas drilling companies operating in the state, over a fracking fluid spill in a Susquehanna tributary was entirely appropriate given the environmental threat posed to the nation's largest estuary.

Certainly, this will cause some delay. But Pennsylvania has already amply demonstrated the dangers of rushing into gas drilling without a sufficient understanding of the risks to human health and safety involved.

Even so, the presence of a study provides no guarantee that Maryland is not destined to make the same mistakes as its neighbors to the north. One of the first areas of study under Gov. O'Malley's order is to look at what taxes might be applied to the industry. The resulting proposal is expected to go before the General Assembly by early next year.

Given the state's fiscal challenges of recent years, a new source of tax revenue will no doubt look enticing. But much of the remainder of the study is not expected to be completed for several years, a far more realistic timetable for determining the industry's fate.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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