Robert M. Summers, Maryland's acting environment secretary, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday that the federal government must step in to help protect the environment from the possibility of contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing drilling for natural gas.
"We need the federal government to take a more active role," Summers told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, adding that the state has applications pending from two companies that want use the process, known as "fracking," to drill for natural gas in Marcellus shale deposits in Western Maryland.
"While we believe states should retain the responsibility and should be able to enact more stringent requirements," he said, "a federal regulatory 'floor' would ensure at least basic protection of the environment and public health."
Energy experts predict there's enough natural gas under Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Ohio and Western Maryland to supply the nation's needs for 15 to 20 years. The reserves are in particularly high demand given the wild swings in prices for other energy sources.
But the fracking process uses millions of gallons of liquid that can become contaminated. In Pennsylvania and other states where the procedure is used, residential wells have been polluted with drilling fluid.
Summers told the committee that the procedure "will not start in Maryland until we know whether, and how, it can be done safely."
The General Assembly, which adjourned Monday, failed to pass a proposed two-year, industry-financed analysis of the procedure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also studying the effects of the process.
Regulators from several other states who testified in Washington Tuesday argued that federal involvement is not necessary because local officials have already stepped up oversight on their own. "After all, and not be trite, we drink the water, too," said Jeff Cloud, a vice chairman of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities in that state.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin was a co-chair of the hearing.
"The industry has failed to meet minimally acceptable performance levels for protecting human health and the environment," the Maryland Democrat said. "That is both an industry failure and a failure of the regulatory agencies."