Fracking moves forward

Even with 'best practices,' hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Western Maryland is a risky proposition

A week ago, a failed switch in a home along the shores of Deep Creek Lake caused 1,700 gallons of raw sewage to accidentally spill into the water, enough that health officials had to monitor local water quality and post warning signs nearby after the cleanup. The episode was uncommon, but it demonstrated how much the Garrett County resort area depends on pristine water not only at Deep Creek but at the wild and scenic Youghiogheny River, which is considered one of the Mid-Atlantic's best spots for kayaking.

This week, the final report weighing the costs and benefits of Marcellus Shale drilling was released in draft form by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources and Department of the Environment. Its authors ultimately recommend the state move forward with hydraulic fracturing — fracking — for gas, but not without some major caveats. Here's what they wrote about the potential consequences for Garrett's economic lifeblood:

"The economy of Garrett County, more so than Allegany County, is dependent on tourism and outdoor recreation, which could suffer during the active phases of gas development, even if no accidents or incidents occur," the study notes. "A large portion of Garrett County's revenue comes from real estate taxes on the land around Deep Creek Lake, and studies have shown that property values can decline sharply if drilling occurs nearby."

Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he intends to move forward with regulations that would require energy companies to follow "best practices" and minimize the hazards — perhaps to a degree unmatched by any other state. That Maryland is going to approve fracking eventually no longer seems to be in doubt given that Gov.-elect Larry Hogan has made clear his support for exploitation of the state's natural gas resources. But how the state regulates the industry is critical.

It's disappointing to hear Mr. Hogan already sniping at the O'Malley administration for adopting regulations of various kinds during the final two months in power, calling them an effort to "sneak things in at the end." We trust he's not referring to the proposed restrictions on fracking which even supporters of drilling recognize as crucial. The incoming governor deserves to have a say on them, of course, but so does the General Assembly, which probably ought to have placed a moratorium on unconventional drilling until regulations are adopted that can protect Western Maryland tourism, quality of life and other vital interests.

Here's another point the latest study makes — the financial benefits of drilling for natural gas are not as great as one might think. Maryland has only a small portion of the Marcellus Shale deposit, essentially less than a county and a half's worth, and many of the jobs that would be created by drilling will go to out-of-state crews from places like Texas and Oklahoma who show up with their equipment, drill the wells and then leave for the next drilling site.

It's part of the "boom and bust" nature of natural gas development. Even the tax dollars involved are relatively modest with Allegany County securing little more than $4 million in a peak year and Garrett $17.1 million. There are royalty payments to those who own mineral rights, of course, but, as the authors point out, that's not necessarily going to people who live in Maryland as mineral rights typically aren't held by landowners — that relationship was severed decades ago when energy companies were hunting for coal.

One would have to be truly oblivious not to have concerns about hydraulic fracturing, which involves horizontal drilling and the fracturing of underground rock with pressurized water and chemicals to release gas deposits. There have been enough bad experiences in neighboring Pennsylvania where at least 243 drinking water wells have been contaminated by fracking operations, according to a recent report, to justify such caution. It isn't just about protecting human health (although that ought to be the top priority) but defending the region's economy as well.

A kayaking trip, an eco tour, a hike to Swallow Falls, a rafting trip down the Upper "Yough," waterskiing on Deep Creek — none of these signature Garrett County tourist attractions benefit if customers first get stuck on rural highways behind chemical trucks hauling fracking wastewater or the visitors discover methane leaking into their drinking water. This is one circumstance where Mr. Hogan ought to be pleased that the state wants to regulate. What the next governor ought to be examining more closely, given the relatively modest and fleeting benefits of fracking versus the potential harm to local businesses, is whether these risks ought to be tolerated at all.

 

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