Ed Larrimore, administrator of the mining program at the Maryland Department of the Environment, said he has heard the complaints that the state is hostile to the industry. There is less drilling here, in part, because much of the gas lies under state forests and wildlife management areas in Western Maryland, he said.

"Maryland has been more protective of its public lands than other states," said Larrimore. "Pennsylvania and West Virginia have thousands of wells, and they are more used to them."

Maryland's approval process is more involved than Pennsylvania's or West Virginia's, requiring three permits for each well, approval from the governor to drill on public land, a 1,000-foot setback from most adjacent properties and the consent of property owners who can block access to drillers with mineral rights underneath their land.

In response to exploration by oil and gas companies around the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland passed a ban in 1988 on drilling in the bay, its coastal areas or wetlands. The law also required regulations to be issued before any leasing of state land for drilling, but in the 17 years since, the state has never approved such rules, said Arnold "Butch" Norden, a planner for state Department of Natural Resources.

"It made things a bit difficult" for drilling, said Norden. "The state meant to protect natural resources."

Another reason there is less drilling in Maryland, said Chris Swezey, research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is that parts of the Oriskany sandstone formation, which contains natural gas, were heavily drilled in the 1950s and 1960s in Garrett County, then abandoned because they were largely tapped out. But, Swezey said, "There are several [natural gas] fields through Western Maryland, and there could be more gas there still to find."

The Oriskany sandstone formation is named after the village in upstate New York where it was first identified, and it extends through much of the Appalachian Mountains region south to eastern Kentucky. In the pores between the grains of sand is natural gas, which started to form about 380 million years ago when algae and aquatic plants died and were buried in mud. The gas produced by the decay of this vegetable matter is trapped in pockets by a layer of dense shale about 7,000 to 10,000 feet underground.

The last well drilled through this formation in Maryland was 10 years ago, not far from Cumberland. The company that owns that well, now called Oil & Gas Management of Pennsylvania, has fought a decade-long, fruitless battle to drill a second well in the state-owned Dans Mountain Wildlife Management Area, said Vice President Cathy A. Kirsch.

Kirsch's failed struggle to obtain a lease from the state has attracted the sympathy of the House minority leader, Del. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican.

"Gov. [Parris N.] Glendening's administration was against harvesting our energy resources, either by mining coal or drilling gas," said Edwards. "But in my opinion, we need to produce our energy here in America, and if we can drill gas here in Western Maryland, that would be good for the country and the state."

But neither Edwards nor the Ehrlich administration has proposed changes to make it easier to drill in Maryland, according to state officials. This frustrates Kirsch.

"Maryland is always so afraid of the environment and public opinion, they just can't move forward to allow drilling," she said.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com