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Report concludes Maryland can safely 'frack'

Maryland agencies have concluded that natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) can be accomplished without unacceptable risks, but only if a suite of best practices is required, monitoring and inspections are rigorous, and enforcement is ironclad. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released their conclusions yesterday in a draft report written in close consultation with the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission. If the state chooses to issue permits for fracking in the Marcellus Shale, it is imperative first to write new regulations that incorporate the results of this careful work. Without the safeguards recommended in the report, people and the environment will be exposed to unnecessary risks. If the results are ignored, public trust will be undermined.

Advances in horizontal drilling technology and fracking, along with high prices for natural gas, fueled interest in extracting gas from the Marcellus Shale starting in about 2004. Maryland's attention became focused on fracking when news spread that gas leases were being signed in Garrett and western Allegany Counties in Western Maryland. The first applications for permits to drill and frack Marcellus Shale wells were received by MDE in 2009 (all of these permit applications were subsequently withdrawn). Maryland's existing oil and gas regulations had not been written with fracking in mind, and the regulators and permit writers were not familiar with the new practices.

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Troubling reports of potential or real environmental problems such as groundwater pollution were coming out of some neighboring states where fracking was already happening. So, too, were stories of an economic revival and desperately-desired job creation. Therefore, in July 2011 the governor issued an executive order charging MDE and DNR to examine all aspects of unconventional natural gas development and to determine whether Maryland could allow it without unacceptable risks to the environment, natural resources and the public. To assist, help oversee and provide a mechanism for public participation in the process, the executive order created the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission. The commissioners who were appointed came from a variety of backgrounds and expressed a wide diversity of opinions. Since August 2011, the commission has met in public session 34 times, usually in Western Maryland.

MDE and DNR's draft final report was developed over the course of three years of painstaking advisory commission deliberations. We addressed topics such as industry best practices, the regional economy and economic projections, the identification and analysis of risks, and potential impacts to public health. The departments listened to all sides of every issue as they was discussed by commissioners, by invited experts, and through public comments offered at commission meetings or received by mail and email. Make no mistake — members of the advisory commission are somewhat divided, and the final report to the governor and legislature is not an advisory commission report. It is a joint MDE/DNR report written by the departments.

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Here are three important take-away messages from the draft report:

•First, we must be mindful that drilling and fracking are major industrial operations, and, like many other heavy industries such as coal mining, shipping and trucking, there are many risks involved.

•Second, if Maryland is going to allow fracking, it needs to mandate every possible best practice in order to lower all the risks as much as possible.

•Third, procedures related to fracking are constantly improving, and scientific understanding of the industry's impacts is becoming clearer. Therefore, the MDE/DNR report emphasizes that the state's management strategy should anticipate continuous adaptation and change as knowledge improves.

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Natural gas from the Marcellus Shale presents both opportunities and challenges. A path for overcoming the challenges and realizing the benefits has been charted, and Maryland would ignore that path at our peril. Whether the decision on fracking rests with Gov. Martin O'Malley or Governor-elect Larry Hogan, the draft report makes it clear that significant new regulations and strong enforcement must be in place in order to minimize the risks of unconventional natural gas development. Even with the protections recommended by the departments, some members of the advisory commission and the public continue to express deep reservations about whether fracking can be done safely.

David A. Vanko is dean of the Jess and Mildred Fisher College of Science and Mathematics at Towson University and chairman of the Maryland Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission. His email is dvanko@towson.edu.

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