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MD environment chief wants fed oversight of "fracking"

Maryland's chief environmental regulator called Tuesday for greater federal oversight of drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing.

Robert M. Summers, acting secretary of the environment, told a Senate committee that he's looking for the federal government to play a "more active role" in regulating the drilling technique known as "fracking."

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"While we believe states should retain the responsibility and should be able to enact more stringent requirements if they desire," Summers said, "the federal regulatory floor will ensure at least basic protections of public health."

The Senate Environment and Public Works hearing, co-chaired by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-MD, was looking into potential health and environmental impacts of fracking, increasingly used to extract gas in parts of Appalachia. Read more about the hearing here.

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Energy experts have said there's enough natural gas in Marcellus shale deposits under Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Ohio and Western Maryland to supply the nation's needs for 15 to 20 years.  But concerns have been raised about the impacts of widespread drilling, which involves injecting millions of gallons of water and chemicals into the ground, then pumping them back out.  There have been reports of spills and contaminated wells.

EPA and other government agencies, including the Maryland Department of the Environment, are analyzing the potential impacts of fracking, and MDE has held up for more than a year acting on requests to drill in western Maryland.  A bill that would have blocked drilling for two more years so the state could conduct an industry-financed study died in the final day of the General Assembly this week.

Summers told the Senate panel Maryland officials would not approve drilling until they were sure it could be done safely.

(There's been some debate on an earlier post about fracking over whether the state already has all the regulatory power it needs to control fracking's impacts. State regulations do give MDE broad authority to set conditions on any drilling permit it issues, and to levy fees and require a bond to cover any cleanup or reclamation costs.

(MDE actually endorsed the two-year drilling study legislation, though.  Dave, the drilling advocate on the earlier post, might say that was just "political correctness," but if you take MDE at face value, their officials said they wanted more time to study the gamut of impacts from drilling - including the cumulative impact of many wells, not just each individual one - on ground and surface water, on air quality, forests and land use. MDE officials said they envisioned promulgating some new regulations applicable to this technology, to compelment whatever permit conditions they might set.

(The bill that died called for all that, spelling out the broad parameters of the study. It also would have required the industry to underwrite the study, with a $10 per acre fee on all drilling leases signed. The industry apparently was okay with all that, and even willing to wait at least another year to begin any drilling. Where discussion broke down - and the bill died - was over whether to allow drilling and gas production in the second year of the study.

(The industry argued, as Dave does, that MDE had ample authority to put whatever conditions it deemed appropriate on wells, so there was no need to wait until the study was finished. Administration officials and sponsors of the bill agreed that some "exploratory" drilling would be appropriate, so they could more closely evaluate the impacts, but didn't want to allow gas production before completing the review.

(The upshot is that the administration is still committed to studying drilling impacts more, and wants to wait until EPA finishes its evaluation as well, which isn't likely until late next year. Meanwhile, there won't be any extra funds for MDE to do its study. Whether that money was really necessary - or will further delay the agency's action on permit requests - remains to be seen.)

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