Maryland officials say state will miss deadline to set fracking rules, as push for a permanent ban begins

A fracking ban in Maryland expires in 2017, and officials are asking how (and if) drilling can be done safely.

State environmental regulators say they will not adopt rules to govern gas drilling in Western Maryland by Oct. 1, missing a legal deadline one year out from the expiration of the statewide ban on the controversial practice known as fracking.

While officials said regulations are still expected some time this fall, the delay means details of how the state would manage risks to groundwater and public health remain unclear as debate intensifies over whether and how safely hydraulic fracturing might occur in Maryland.

The gas-extraction technique, which involves injecting fluids into rock at high pressure, has been found to contaminate nearby water sources.

Advocates of fracking and opponents alike have been waiting for the specifics of the Hogan administration's plans as they anticipate heated debate in next year's General Assembly session.

Under current law, energy companies can begin developing fracking operations in Maryland as soon as Oct. 1, 2017. Some lawmakers have pledged to sponsor legislation before then to ban the practice permanently.

Supporters of fracking say they aren't concerned about the state missing an arbitrary deadline.

Sen. George Edwards, a Western Maryland Republican who backs fracking, said the more time state officials spend vetting and revising the regulations, the better. The Maryland Department of the Environment released an overview of its proposal this summer.

Critics, who view those plans as a weakening of regulations drafted under Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, see the missed deadline as troubling.

Lawmakers said they set the deadline so they could review proposed safeguards thoroughly to ensure they are as strong as possible. Some opponents of fracking say the delay strengthens the case for a permanent ban.

"If they don't have enough capacity to write the regulations, how can we believe they'll have enough capacity to effectively implement all the safeguards?" asked Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the state environmental agency, said work to craft fracking regulations is "very much still an ongoing process."

The department added an extra layer of review that is not required by law when it released the overview of its plans in June with a 30-day window for public comment afterward, he said. Once the department releases a detailed draft of the regulations, there will be another 30-day opportunity for public input.

Lawmakers established the deadline in a 2015 bill that became law without Hogan's signature. The legislation extended a fracking moratorium that was already in place by another two years.

That time was intended to give state officials time to research fracking risks and proper safeguards, and the deadline was meant to be strict, said Del. Kumar Barve, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the house committee that oversees energy issues.

"It's not important; it's mandatory. The law requires it," he said. "Once they publish regulations, we'll be able to assess whether they're good enough or not."

Not all of those involved in the fracking debate agree.

Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said he doesn't think the timing of the proposal makes a difference as long as it's released before the legislative session, which begins in January.

State environmental regulators are still considering dozens of letters they received in response to a set of issue papers they released in June that detailed the Hogan administration's planned approach to fracking. The plans included significant changes to regulations a commission appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley spent several years developing.

Those changes include allowing gas wells to be drilled closer to homes and wells and reducing environmental testing requirements, but also requiring more layers of casing around wells and prohibiting drilling near three reservoirs in Garrett County.

The letters, which the department provided to The Baltimore Sun, include concerns that the proposed regulations would be too lax, and others suggesting they would be the toughest in the nation.

Hundreds of environmental groups, energy industry organizations and residents have weighed in on the issue in writing or at public meetings. Some are concerned about health risks, others with the state infringing on their property rights.

David Vanko, dean of Towson University's math and science programs, spent four years leading the O'Malley-appointed fracking commission, which disbanded after issuing its recommendations in 2015. He wrote to the Hogan administration that its revisions could make the risks of drilling "too great to accept."

"The 2015 regulations are a good proposal and yet there are still some major 'ifs' associated with them — if there's solid regulation, if there's solid enforcement, if there's adequate environmental monitoring," he said in an interview. "It's easy to erode those 'ifs' little by little, which is what some of the recommended changes did."

Residents were divided in their comments. Nadine Grabania joined the Sierra Club and Citizen Shale in criticizing the Hogan administration's approach.

"If Maryland goes forward with fracking, under any regulatory scheme, but certainly with this failure, history will show it is the first state to permit this ultra-hazardous activity with 'eyes wide open' to its unacceptable risks," the Friendsville woman wrote.

But others suggested opposition comes largely from activists who don't live in Western Maryland, where some are eager to begin fracking, and should respect local property decisions.

"With all the safeguards being built into the revised drilling regulations, the chance of an accident would appear little to none," Oakland resident Harold E. Harris wrote.

The Sierra Club favors banning fracking altogether. But Tulkin said he wants to see how or whether the state incorporates the public comments into the regulations.

"We will absolutely offer substantive feedback on any regulations released, but we're not optimistic," he said.

But even as stakeholders await the fracking rules, some of the debate likely won't even address the proposal.

"That's not where this discussion needs to go; that completely misses the point," said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has pledged to introduce a bill banning fracking permanently. "As far as I'm concerned they can hold off on the regulations forever."

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