House OKs shale gas study fee, landowner protections

The House today passed legislation aimed at safeguarding western Maryland landowners from potential harm from drilling for natural gas in shale deposits in mountainous Garrett and Allegany counties.

One bill, HB1204, would require the gas industry to finance the state's ongoing study of safety questions around the widely used but controversial drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."  Amid fierece debate over fracking's impact in other states, Gov.Martin O'Malleylast year ordered his administration to conduct a wide-ranging three-year review before approving any drilling permits - but state officials had said they lacked funding to carry it out.  

By a vote of 88-49, delegates approved a one-time fee of $15 per acre on all new and existing drilling leases so the Maryland Department of the Environment could complete the study.  In deference to industry supporters who complain the delay in drilling is excessive, the fee was scaled back, and lawmakers directed the department to speed up its review, finishing in 2013 rather than 2014, as now called for under the governor's executive order.

A second measure, HB1123, which passed 94-41, would presume drilling companies are responsible for any damage to drinking water wells or streams and ponds within 2,500 feet of a well.  The protection is similar to one recently adopted in Pennsylvania, according to supporters.

Environmentalists praised the House action, calling it a good compromise and urging the Senate to pass it. Mike Tidwell, head of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said that while the bills had been pared back they still advanced activists' aim "to make fracking safe in Maryland."

But Drew Cobbs, director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said the industry opposes the measures, unless it gets some assurance it can proceed with drilling. 

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