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Fracking commission needs more time [Commentary]

After 25 meetings in 30 months, Maryland's Safe-Drilling Advisory Commission can show nearly finalized recommendations for overhauling the regulation of gas drilling by the Maryland Department of Environment and Department of Natural Resources (MDE and DNR). Two other major undertakings, studies of economic impacts and health impacts, have early summer deadlines. Less determined are work-plans for analyzing transportation concerns and drilling risks.

Together, these unfinished studies form the backbone of a final report due in about 150 days, on Aug. 1. We propose that there is no way to meet this deadline — for good reasons.

Even if the known target dates are met, the commission will have, at most, two months to transform a daunting volume of information into a final report with actionable recommendations. This certainly does not allow for much external or public review.

Maryland's Health Impacts study is months from completion and considered vital to the development of our "best practices," which will form the basis of the regulatory overhaul. Too many questions remain about the health effects from "fracking," which uses liquid pressure to crack shale formations to extract hydrocarbons, to move forward on final regulatory recommendations before the study is finished.

Researchers face a quandary similar to the one faced with smoking in past decades: To measure human health impacts, scientists could not purposely expose humans to tar and other suspected harmful substances in cigarette smoke; instead, findings about its dangers were based on observing unintended or unanticipated exposures. Additionally, with fracking, the activity is occurring entirely outside Maryland.

Because most of the public health research on unconventional gas extraction is recent (2012 onward), the Maryland study team must have the time it needs for thorough analysis and recommendations.

In establishing the advisory commission in 2011, the only "purpose" specified in Gov. Martin O'Malley's executive order is "determining whether and how" Marcellus gas production "can be accomplished without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources." His order specifically mentions risks of groundwater contamination and other "negative impacts" to natural resources.

Unacceptable risks could be short- or long-term, or cumulative. Once identified, the governor's order dictates that changes to state laws or regulations be considered to address these risks.

The advisory commission spent more than a year developing best practices. Many commissioners, several times along the way, expressed concern: "What risks will we be regulating?" they asked. Finally, at consecutive monthly meetings in spring 2013, commissioners asked, "What about the risk study?"

Joe Gill, acting director of DNR, explained to Commissioner Paul Roberts by telephone that "it's our reading of the executive order that a formal risk analysis isn't required" and that an alternative strategy would be pursued.

After Commissioner Nick Weber identified an in-state expert, Charles Yoe at Notre Dame University of Maryland ultimately was invited to make a presentation to the commission. MDE and DNR later said they would perform an "in-house" risk review, based loosely on Mr. Yoe's recommendations.

Hydraulic fracturing is linked in other states to ruination of rural drinking water and to rural air pollution equivalent to that in our largest cities. Western Maryland's economy and culture depend on our natural environment. It's our Chesapeake Bay. We respectfully ask: If risks to our air and water don't warrant a comprehensive risk study, what would?

In a July 18 letter to agency directors, eight non-governmental organizations (NGOs) tracking the commission's work re-stated the need for a rigorous approach. If the state made no response by Aug. 1, 2013, the NGOs wrote, "we intend to pursue an alternative strategy." And that's where we are today: The NGOs identified work done for the European Commission by a British firm, Ricardo/AEA, as an ideal model for Maryland. Two of the NGOs — Chesapeake Climate Action Network, with money from philanthropies, and Garrett County's Citizen Shale, with contributions from residents of Mountain Lake Park, the county's most populous municipality — retained the British firm.

Their 111-page study, released last week identifies nine "high risk" categories, including contamination of surface and underground aquifers.

Findings from this study — for which the state provided data — and from its own studies, due out in early summer, are paramount for making the determinations ordered by the governor, and for presaging new regulations via the best practices.

The commission's term is set to expire in May 2015, and that may not even be enough time to wade through study results expected this summer.

To ensure that the General Assembly has an opportunity to act, we support Del. Heather Mizeur and Sen. Ron Young's "Shale Gas Drilling Safety Review Act" (SB745/HB1122), which faces hearings this week. Among other steps, the law would require reasonable time-limit precautions for legislators to weigh in on all studies and commission recommendations.

Of course, the governor could choose to address through regulation any remaining high risks identified. But we think that is not a good choice. To protect public health and our natural resources, Marylanders and their elected representatives deserve a full airing of all state studies and full participation in decisions about unconventional gas drilling.

Ann Bristow, Paul Roberts and Nick Weber are commissioners on the Maryland Safe-Drilling Advisory Commission. They may respectively be reached at piperannie@gmail.com, paulr@deepcreekcellars.com and heritagero@aol.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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