While Maryland's energy future might lie in harnessing the breezes off Ocean City, the frontier for now is in the same place it's always been — in the mountains of Western Maryland — where the region's winds and coal and natural gas reserves are drawing prospectors.
That's unsettling to some environmentalists and Western Marylanders, who fear the impact of new and traditional energy development on the region's rich natural resources, its outdoors-oriented tourist industry and its rural quality of life.
Maryland's first two industrial-scale wind "plants" are on the verge of generating power atop the state's highest mountain in Garrett County. Though their construction stirred concerns over harming rare bats and disturbing forested vistas, a new string of them is being planned for another ridgetop.
Near Grantsville, miners pursuing the region's long-exploited coal reserves are set to begin tunneling under the Casselman River, sole home to two of the state's rarest animals, to extract ore from the other side.
And in the far northwestern corner of the state, an Oklahoma-based company is inching closer to getting the first permit to drill in Maryland for natural gas locked in Marcellus shale deposits deep underground. To get at the gas, the company plans to use a hydraulic fracturing technique that has been blamed in other states for tainting residential wells and polluting streams.
The prospects that there might be a vast, untapped wealth of clean-burning natural gas beneath Garrett and western Allegany counties has spurred energy companies and speculators to lease or buy the rights to drill throughout the region. In Garrett alone, county officials estimate drilling rights have been lined up on 124,000 acres — more than a quarter of the county's land mass — including on or next to publicly owned land in Savage River State Forest.
Western Maryland's role as the state's energy frontier doesn't bother state Sen. George C. Edwards, a Republican who represents Garrett and Allegany counties. He says the income and jobs from each energy project are badly needed in communities where unemployment is higher than average.
"We're the only place in the state that has energy, except for wind," Edwards said. "This country should be energy-independent. We ought to be part of making us energy-independent."
But others are worried about the environmental impacts of one or more of the energy industries at work in the region, and some are pressing for moratoriums.
Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, says "it's clear that coal and shale gas are real threats to the physical integrity of Western Maryland.
"The question is, what's the price of energy on the beautiful natural heritage of Western Maryland?" he asks.
Constellation Energy is testing the last of the 28 wind turbines it has built this year on Backbone Mountain south of Oakland. A spokesman says the Baltimore-based company expects to begin producing power from the $140 million project in the next week or two.
Synergics Wind Energy, which started erecting 20 turbines on the same mountain after Constellation, has already begun producing electricity from some even as it finishes work on the others, according to company spokesman Frank Maisano.
Meanwhile, Maisano confirmed that the Annapolis-based company is planning what could be the state's third land-based wind project atop Four-Mile Ridge southwest of Frostburg, where it would build 24 turbines with up to 60 megawatts-generating capacity.
But opponents are urging the county's newly elected commissioners to impose a moratorium on new turbines until a thorough review is conducted of their efficacy, safety and environmental impacts.
"Time is of the utmost importance before our mountain culture is forever destroyed," John Bambacus, a former Republican state senator and ex-mayor of Frostburg, wrote to one commissioner-elect.
None of the three new commissioners, who take office this week, responded to e-mails seeking his position on the moratorium request.
Tidwell is particularly concerned about what he says has been a "dramatic increase" in surface coal mining in Western Maryland, which he considers harmful to the region's streams and forests. Mines can be seen from Interstate 68, and from the town of Frostburg, he points out.
While Maryland's overall coal production has fallen in the past decade, the number of surface mines in the state has grown from 12 in 2001 to 20 last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. John Carey, chief of the Maryland Bureau of Mines, a division of the state Department of the Environment, estimates that there are actually more than 30 active surface mines and two underground mines, but he says there's not been a noticeable increase in mining activity in recent years. Production declined last year during the recession.
There has, however, been an increase this year in complaints from the public. Carey says he's not sure why his office has received three dozen so far, twice the number last year. He speculates that it could be because mining is occurring closer to Frostburg. Or, he says, there might have been more complaints about dust kicked up by coal trucks because it was so dry.
While underground mines disturb less land, a new one being developed near Grantsville would tunnel under the Casselman River. The river is home to two of the state's endangered species, a large salamander called hellbender, and a fish, the stone cat.
Carey said restrictions have been placed on the mine to prevent it from affecting the river, and noted that there'll be no mining allowed under the river at all.
For Sunshine Brosi, a biology instructor at Frostburg State University, even a remote risk of harming such rare creatures is too much. "How do you pay for your grandkid never getting to see a hellbender salamander?" she asked.
Though acidic water leaking from old mines fouls Western Maryland's streams, Carey says mining now is tightly controlled to prevent any additional water pollution. And Edwards, the state senator, says that new mining operations often are required to correct acidic drainage from past mining
Marcellus shale gas
Debate over wind and coal in Western Maryland pales, however, when compared with the hubbub over exploiting the region's Marcellus shale gas deposits.
Hundreds of landowners have signed leases or sold outright the mineral rights beneath their property, sometimes for fees of as little as $5 an acre and the promise of a percentage of the proceeds from any gas that might be produced there.
Samson Resources, of Tulsa, applied more than a year ago for permission to drill four wells, three in Garrett and one in Allegany. Jay Apperson, spokesman for the state Department of the Environment, says regulators are still reviewing those applications and could not say when the state would decide on them.
Steve Trujillo, Samson's operations and engineering manager, says the company has dropped plans for three of the wells, but still hopes to get approval for the fourth near the Pennsylvania line. And the company expects to apply soon for two new wells, he said.
A second company, Chief Oil & Gas LLC of Dallas, has submitted paperwork to Garrett officials for drilling four wells in the northern part of the county and plans to apply soon for state permits, according to Kristi Gittins, the company's vice president for industry and public affairs.
The new reservoirs of gas are only reachable by hydraulic fracturing, which involves drilling down to the shale, 7,000 feet to 9,000 feet below the surface, and horizontally through it. Then drillers pump water, sand and chemicals into the rock at high pressure to crack it and release the gas so it can be pumped out.
While many landowners are eager to cash in on a potential gas boom, others are worried by reports from Pennsylvania and other states of gas leaking into residents' wells and of drilling fluids spilling into streams. Others have expressed concern about the chemicals used in "fracking" fluids, some of them petroleum-based.
"We're not saying we shouldn't have this industry come in here," said Eric Robison, co-founder of Save Western Maryland, a group originally opposed to wind projects but has since voiced concerns about mining and shale gas. "For some landowners, it will be very profitable," he added. "But I think we should step lightly."
Both company officials insisted their companies intend to take every precaution in drilling in Maryland.
"We want to be a long-term partner in Maryland," Trujillo said. "We do not want any mistakes."
But critics note that Marcellus shale drillers in Pennsylvania have committed more than 1,600 violations of state regulations in the past two years. According to a database of violations kept by the University of Pittsburgh, Samson was cited for 12 offenses on two wells, while Chief garnered 198 citations on 83 wells.
"We've had some leaks," said Chief's Gittins, but characterized them as minor and not causing any environmental harm. Samson's Trujillo likewise said it was cited for minor shortcomings and insisted that none of his company's fracturing had ever affected ground water.
Given the problems in Pennsylvania, Del. Heather Mizeur, a Democrat representing Montgomery County, is drafting legislation for a statewide moratorium on drilling for more study and regulation.
"We don't want to repeat the mistakes Pennsylvania has made … before one well is drilled we need facts and safeguards in place," she said.
Edwards said the Washington-area lawmaker should stay out of it.
"It could be one of the biggest economic things to hit this part of the state," he said, "but it's got to be done right."
Edwards said state officials have assured him they'll impose conditions on any wells that are stricter than what Pennsylvania has. According to a fact sheet Edwards said he got from state regulators, they plan to require extra casing and grouting on each well to prevent leaks, and leak-proof storage of the recovered "frac" fluid.
"We're identifying all the issues that need to be addressed," Apperson said. "We have the authority we need to put the conditions on the permits to provide for public safety and protect the environment."