O'Malley panel urges 'fracking' safeguards

An advisory commission studying whether shale gas extraction should proceed in Maryland called Monday for new legislation to deal with potential abuses in leasing and drilling for the fuel, but environmentalists said so many questions remain about the safety of the drilling method known as "fracking" that they want lawmakers to impose a moratorium until the issue has been fully analyzed.

The 15-member panel appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley agreed during an Annapolis meeting to recommend three bills to address concerns about the hydraulic fracturing drilling method, including a proposed state "severance tax" on any gas extracted to help pay for effects on nearby communities.


Another suggested bill would give landowners the right to be compensated if drilling hurts their property, while a third would require all "land men" who negotiate drilling leases to register with the state.

The panel had agreed last fall to recommend a fourth measure, which would have required drilling companies to provide binding assurances that they can pay to clean up any leaks or pollution from their wells.


But commission members steered clear of recommending a specific severance tax rate and could not agree on how far to go in legislating "surface owners' property rights." While more than 160,000 acres in Western Maryland have been leased, some landowners have complained they signed away permission to drill on their property without being made aware of concerns about fracking's environmental impact.

"I do regret that some people got into leases they didn't understand," said James M. Raley, a Garrett County commissioner on the panel. But he expressed reluctance to have the state impose conditions on contracts already agreed to.

It's unclear how many of these measures might be voted on this year. The 90-day legislative session begins Wednesday.

The advisory commission is entering the final year of a three-year study ordered by O'Malley to assess the promise and pitfalls of fracking in the gas-rich Marcellus shale rock formation underlying part of Western Maryland and the rest of Appalachia. O'Malley put drilling in the state on hold and tasked the group with deciding whether safeguards can be put in place to avoid problems that have cropped up in neighboring states like Pennsylvania, where shale gas extraction has been booming.

In fracking, large quantities of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the ground to fracture or break rocks holding pockets of gas. Environmentalists contend the method has contaminated wells, caused air and water pollution, and harmed livestock, but industry officials and supporters defend the practice as safe and say there's been no conclusive evidence of any harmful side effects.

David Vanko, the panel's chairman and a geologist at Towson University, said the group has yet to tackle the most important questions over whether the drilling activity poses any risk to people's health.

At the end of the three-hour session, Mike Tidwell, head of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, told the panel its deliberations to date "have been raising more questions than answers."

Speaking at a State House rally later, Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat who has championed environmental concerns about fracking, said the gas industry has thwarted efforts to fund the panel's work with a tax on gas leases.


This year, Mizeur said, she's drafting a bill to replace the governor's de facto moratorium with a legally binding one that would not be lifted until there has been what she called a "vigorous independent scientific review." She said she's open to different ideas on how to finance that review but believes the industry rather than taxpayers ought to pay for it.