State introduces fracking regulations, one year ahead of ban's end

A year before a fracking ban in Maryland expires, the state has proposed rules for the controversial industry.

The Hogan administration has proposed rules that would prohibit the gas-drilling technique known as fracking within 2,000 feet of a private drinking water well, require steel casings around gas bores to a depth of 100 feet, and require energy companies to replace any water supply that is contaminated by the practice.

The Maryland Department of the Environment submitted the measures Monday to a legislative committee that reviews regulations, a year before a state ban on fracking ends.

The plan was unveiled five days ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline set by lawmakers for the rules to be formally adopted. Department of the Environment officials now expect the approval process to finish by the end of the year instead.

Secretary Ben Grumbles said the rules “will be the most stringent and protective environmental shale regulations in the country.”

“If fracking ever comes to western Maryland, these rigorous regulations will be in place beforehand to help ensure safe and responsible energy development,” Grumbles said in a statement.

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting fluids at high pressure into the ground to release natural gas stored within the rock. In Maryland, energy companies want to drill into the Marcellus shale rock formation under Garrett and Allegany counties.

The regulations differ significantly from rules drafted under the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration is proposing that fracking be permitted closer to homes and wells than would have been allowed under O'Malley, but it is also requiring more layers of casing around bores close to the surface.

In response to concerns about the risks of water contamination, the Hogan administration also proposes a ban on fracking within the watersheds of three reservoirs in Garrett County.

The General Assembly passed legislation last year requiring the environment department to write the regulations. It became law without Hogan's signature.

Opponents of fracking said the proposed regulations don’t change their plans to push for a permanent ban on the practice.

Nadine Grabania, secretary of Citizen Shale in Western Maryland, said the group “has no confidence in the state's ability to regulate this hazardous activity, nor in its commitment to monitor and enforce those regulations.”

“We urge the General Assembly to save our communities from the Hogan administration’s plans for a misguided experiment,” Grabania said.

State Del. Sandy Rosenberg, the House chair of the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, said the panel would review the regulations and would be open to negotiations over any differences of opinion.

State environment officials said they expect the rules to be formally proposed Nov. 14. After that, they will be subject to a 30-day public comment period.

Rosenberg, a Democrat, said the legislative session beginning in January will offer a more substantial forum for discussions about fracking.

“It's a more public opportunity for the advocacy community and the department to sit down and seek to resolve their differences,” he said.

NOTE: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect number regarding a prohibition of fracking near private drinking wells. Under the state's proposal, fracking would be prohibited within 2,000 feet of private drinking wells. That number is now reflected here.

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