State urged to tighten 'fracking' safeguards

With Maryland weighing some of the toughest regulations in the nation on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, environmentalists and some property owners are questioning whether the rules go far enough to safeguard drinking water, natural resources and public health.

An industry representative, meanwhile, warned that some proposed rules might be so strict that no company would want to drill in the state.


The O'Malley administration has put hydraulic fracturing on hold in Maryland until state officials complete a three-year study of whether it can be done safely. Environmental regulators took questions and comments at the Department of the Environment Tuesday on a recently issued draft report outlining "best practices" used in other states or recommended by experts, which Maryland might require of gas companies here.

Dozens of people, many of them members of environmental groups, urged state officials Tuesday to adopt even stricter regulations on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in the gas-rich Marcellus shale formation in Western Maryland. Some called for the state to ban the controversial practice outright, given concerns raised in other states over groundwater contamination and air pollution. Industry officials and regulators in states that permit shale gas drilling say those concerns are misplaced or overblown.


"The onus or burden should be on the industry," said Julie Gouldener, a Baltimore resident who identified herself as "just a mom." She urged officials to make the industry show that it "can responsibly do fracking where it's already occurring before we allow Maryland to be the next guinea pig."

Some at the meeting said they think state officials have already made up their minds to allow shale gas development, but officials insisted that no decision would be made until studies are completed on potential health and economic impacts of drilling. Gov. Martin O'Malley has set a deadline of August 2014 for finishing all reviews.

Regulators are considering requiring companies to submit a comprehensive five-year plan for how much land they intend to disturb before they seek drilling permits. No other state requires such plans, said Christine Conn of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who explained that officials hope to minimize the land used for gas wells, pipelines, access roads and related development.

State officials are also weighing making companies monitor groundwater for two years before they can start drilling. In addition, regulators favor recycling up to 90 percent of the "flowback" from fracturing, in which millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals are pumped underground, then drawn back to the surface with the gas.

Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said industry representatives are reviewing the report and plan to submit written comments by the Aug. 9 deadline.

Cobbs contended in a telephone interview that some of the requirements under consideration are impractical and could discourage gas companies from wanting to drill in Maryland.

"It's fine to learn from other states," Cobbs said, "but if you end up preventing drilling altogether, what good have you done?"