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Fracking study bill sinking?

Prospects are dimming for a proposed two-year study of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus shale deposits in western Maryland. 

The bill, HB852, sailed through the House 98-40 a few weeks ago, after being substantially reworked.  With only hours to go, though, it has yet to emerge from the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.  Talks between the energy industry, environmental advocates and state officials aimed at resolving their differences over the bill reportedly have broken down.

The House-passed bill calls for the Maryland Departments of the Environment and Natural Resources to study the impact on drinking water wells and surface water of hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking"), as well as the effects of drilling on air quality, traffic, forests and land use.  They were to render a report by 2013, with the study underwritten by a $10 fee paid on every acre of western Maryland land for which energy companies have leased the mineral rights - a total of $1.2 million to $1.5 million, by one estimate.

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Talks have been going on between legislative leaders, the gas industry, environmental advocates and the O'Malley administration in an attempt to address continuing industry issues with the bill.

The chief hangup, according to those involved in the talks, is over allowing "exploratory" drilling before the study is concluded.  Under revisions to be proposed to the Senate panel, state regulators would have to submit an interim report by July 2012, with a final evaluation and recommendations due a year later.

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Industry officials reportedly want to be able to move ahead with producing gas as soon as possible after the interim report, while regulators and others want to limit drilling activity until all the impacts have been thoroughly analyzed.

Another change proposed in the House-passed bill would up the lease fee to $15 an acre for any new contracts signed after a certain date later this year.

With less than eight hours to go, though, the Senate committee must vote out a bill, have it pass the Senate and then get the House to agree to it - or negotiate out the differences.

"Long way to go with not a lot of time on the calendar today," one participant in the talks emailed a short while ago. "Not feeling confident."

Without legislation, state officials have already said they intend to take their time studying the potential impacts of fracking, because of controvesry over the practice in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.  Officials have said it likely will take them two years to complete that evaluation anyway, but left open the possibiility they may decide sooner that they have enough information to put appropriate safeguards in place.

Even so, the lack of legislation would mean there'd be no revenue from gas leases to help pay for the state's study.

(Natural gas well being drilled in Pennsylvania, 2005 Baltimore Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)

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