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Shale study should stick to timeline [Commentary]

In 2011, Governor Martin O'Malley issued an executive order giving the state departments of the environment and of natural resources a clear directive: Determine whether and how natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale in Maryland can be realized without unacceptable risk to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources. The order established the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative and instructed the agencies, in consultation with an advisory commission, to investigate and report back to the governor and the General Assembly.

Today the comprehensive work being done by departmental staff and contractors is on track. Significant changes to this approach being advocated by some in the legislature are not only unnecessary but would likely undermine the effort.

A number of bills have been filed in the General Assembly this year relating to hydraulic fracturing and shale gas development. Some — including one for which three advisory commission members expressed support in a recent Sun op-ed — are not needed and would significantly hinder the work of the commission and the departments. For example, one bill (House Bill 865) would establish exactly how far drilling must be from any water supply wells — even though the science may not justify a setback of the distance contained in the bill and the departments and the advisory commission, while expecting to recommend setbacks, have not yet determined the appropriate distance for them. Another bill (Senate Bill 745/House Bill 1122) would mandate that all requirements be in regulations, which could actually prevent the Department of the Environment from placing additional, site-specific requirements in individual permits, as is the practice now for any other type of drilling.

The departments are moving forward to address the issues related to potential natural gas development with work that is expected to be completed this year.

A "best practices" study, based on a report from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Appalachian Laboratory, considered a catalog of potential risks and recommended the best ways to protect public health and our valued environmental and natural resources. More than 4,000 comments from the public are being considered as this report is finalized, with its release expected in the spring. The agencies and the advisory commission will produce a risk assessment report, to be completed in June, that will consider the more protective measures identified as part of the best practices study. An earlier risk assessment commissioned by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Citizen Shale has to this point only evaluated risks in the context of existing laws and regulations.

A public health study, commissioned by the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, will also be completed in June; Maryland is a leader in this regard. Finally, the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University will report in May on the potential impact of shale gas drilling on the economies of Allegany and Garrett counties — including potential employment opportunities and any effects on tourism.

All of this work is being done in an open manner with continuing, extensive public input. Reports, drafts, meeting minutes and much more are available on the MDE website at bit.ly/mdshaleinitiative.

There is no question that this issue is complex and the work is challenging. The agencies' final report, due out later this year, will be the culmination of three years of study. This time frame will allow the 2015 General Assembly to consider the report and its recommendations. If shale gas development is ultimately allowed in Maryland, best practices will be required, and strict new regulatory requirements would have to be proposed.

The state agencies leading this effort are mindful of both the potential benefits that could come from developing these energy reserves and the paramount concern to protect public health, safety and our environment. We fully understand the importance of getting this issue right. We are meeting the responsibilities set out for us under the governor's executive order and should be afforded the opportunity to complete this work without hindrance.

Robert M. Summers is the secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, and Joseph P. Gill is the secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Their respective emails are mde.secretary@maryland.gov  and Secretary@dnr.state.md.us.

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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