No study, no fracking

Most of us have probably seen or heard the ubiquitous ads promoting domestic natural gas drilling. While they don't tend to use the word "fracking," their message about hydraulic fracturing of shale is clear enough — little kids playing happily on green patches of grass and the promise of bountiful clean energy, jobs and all-around happiness all rolled into one.

Two things can be inferred from the ads. First, that those in the oil and gas industry are absolutely intent on selling their product with extraordinary promises; and second, that they are willing to spend an enormous sum to do so.

Here's what experience has taught us when any corporation, industry or government works that hard and spends that much money to persuade: Better get a second opinion. Whatever the "facts" about fracking (and the ads always wave around that word like they had cornered the global market on facts), it would be wise to hear what scientists who don't draw a paycheck from energy companies had to say on the subject.

That's why it's so frustrating that Maryland's own efforts to investigate the potential problems with hydraulic fracturing in the western part of the state have been thwarted by the industry's failure to support an independent study. What are the oil and gas companies hiding?

Last year, Gov. Martin O'Malley issued an executive order calling for the creation of a commission and a study into fracking in Western Maryland. It was a sensible approach that balanced the concerns about the possible harmfulness of drilling with the potential economic bounty that could come from natural gas development.

But the study needs to be funded, and what has advanced so far — a modest $185,000 survey of "best practices" in other states — is wholly inadequate. State regulators estimate that what's truly needed is a study that will look in far greater detail at the consequences to Maryland of tapping the Marcellus shale deposits. That would cost $2 million.

Companies have balked at financing such a study, perhaps out of fear that it would set a precedent other states might copy. Their lobbyists successfully thwarted legislation in the 2012 General Assembly session that would have financed it with a fee on gas leases. Surely it wasn't the cost that gave them pause, since one less 30-second Super Bowl ad would more than make up the expense (with about $1.5 million left over for beer and chips).

The more likely explanation is that energy companies don't mind a delay. Natural gas prices have fallen in recent years because of the new supply, so they are no longer in the same hurry to close leasing deals. Meanwhile, the governor's executive order will expire when he leaves office after the 2014 election, and the current moratorium will essentially end. Perhaps the industry thinks the next administration will be less protective of the environment and the health of Western Maryland's residents?

That could happen. What's needed is a law on the books that makes it clear that companies can't exploit Maryland's natural resources as they've done in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia without first funding an independent study that will fully explore the consequences — the equivalent of an environmental impact study.

Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat, is leading the charge in Annapolis to approve that measure. Her supporters say they believe most in the General Assembly will support that proposal but her chief obstacle is expected to be Sen. Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore, who chairs the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. She has, in the past, demonstrated a reluctance to bring such a bill to a vote.

While we appreciate the potential profits that might be made from natural gas production in Garrett and Allegany counties, lawmakers need to be mindful of the value of the region's other natural resources — clean water and air — and a tourism industry that depends upon them. We have yet to see any harm come from a study, particularly on such a controversial topic. If Maryland is to ever approve fracking for natural gas, its elected officials should do so with the deepest possible understanding of the risks and rewards involved.

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