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Western Md. lawmaker: Shale drilling 'our BRAC'

The House of Delegates today advanced a plan calling for a two-year study of Marcellus shale drilling -- overriding the objections of Western Maryland lawmakers who want to see the potentially lucrative activity sooner.

Del. Wendell Beitzel acted as the chief proponent of hydraulic fracturing, saying it could provide much-needed financial boost in the most economically depressed part of the state, Garrett and Allegany counties.

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"We're suffering out there," the Republican lawmaker said, noting that his home counties are losing population, jobs and student enrollment. He compared the potential windfall for Western Maryland to the federal Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) plan that is expected to bring new residents and jobs to Harford County and other areas.

"Fracking," as it is known, is the process of extracting natural gas from deep within the ground. Other states, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia, allow private citizens to lease drilling companies the rights to the shale underneath their land. But the extraction process, which produces many tons of wastewater, is controversial.

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Del. Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said the state needs time to study hydraulic fracturing and that proceeding quickly could prove harmful to Maryland's waterways.

Other states, the Baltimore Democrat said, "were ill-prepared for what happened when began to drill." Many have since slowed or stopped the activity while the study it further, she said.

The Senate has not taken action on a similar study proposal, but rejected an effort by Western Maryland Sen. George Edwards to force the Department of the Environment to develop hydraulic fracturing regulations by the end of the year.

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