Md. fracking study loses ground

Last year, when Gov.Martin O'Malley signed an executive order establishing a commission to study the impact of drilling for natural gas in Western Maryland's Marcellus Shale deposit, he promised the state would be guided by "scientific knowledge." Yet gathering that much-needed information costs money, something the state doesn't have at the moment.

That lack of funds will likely mean many months of delay for the fact-finding efforts of the governor's advisory commission. The alternative — to simply not do a thorough study of such issues as the potential economic effects of fracking, the disposal of toxic waste water, and the impact on local ground water — would be wholly unacceptable.

The effort was supposed to be financed by a $15 per acre charge to those companies that hold gas interest to the land. The Maryland Department of the Environment was counting on collecting as much as $2.3 million from the study fee to pay for research. That includes the $138,950 the agency has already spent (and expected to be reimbursed for) on its soon-to-be-released review of industry best practices — essentially the second phase of the agency's 3-part review.

While legislation establishing the fee was approved by the House of Delegates in mid-March, it never made it out of the Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. The bill may have gotten caught up in the budgetary battle between the two chambers, the same standoff that caused the adoption of a "doomsday" budget and will likely lead to a special session to reconsider matters of taxes and spending next month.

The bill's supporters say the gas industry lobbied heavily against the fee, claiming it was anti-business. But it's hardly uncommon for government to expect potential polluters to pay for environmental impact studies, and given the industry's track record in neighboring Pennsylvania, it would seem foolhardy not to conduct one. Certainly, it makes more sense than the only alternative available — to charge state taxpayers for the enterprise.

Make no mistake, U.S. natural gas resources are considerable and could prove extremely helpful in gaining greater energy independence. But that doesn't mean hurtling headlong into whatever the gas and petroleum industry wants to do. Maryland should be no quicker to do that than to give carte blanche to strip mining or off-shore oil drilling.

Regulating hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is not anti-business, it's a sound way to protect health and public safety while enabling responsible use of a valuable natural resource. Last week, theU.S. Environmental Protection Agencyissued rules restricting harmful emissions from such natural gas wells in a classic regulatory win-win. The new rules require drilling companies to capture gases that are often allowed to escape into the atmosphere. That not only protects the environment but provides revenue for the producers and is not expected to slow production.

States have a role to play in this regulatory process as well, and the potential adverse impact of fracking on water supplies is troubling. Opponents have raised legitimate questions about the chemicals used in the process and the possibility that not only groundwater but underground aquifers might be put at risk by large-scale drilling.

Perhaps that danger can be easily managed, as industry officials claim. But that's not a decision that should be made purely on the advice of those private companies that stand to make huge profits from gas drilling in Maryland and elsewhere.

Granted, that cautious approach may put Maryland at a competitive disadvantage to those states that have chosen not to closely regulate gas drilling, particularly as falling natural gas prices are likely to slow new drilling anyway. But that's a choice Marylanders ought to be comfortable making as the value of clean water and air is not something to be taken lightly either.

Maryland's natural gas study was supposed to be wrapped up by Aug. 1, 2014. That seemed a reasonable timetable — until the effort lost its funding source. Now, a completion in 2015 seems more reasonable assuming lawmakers agree on a plan to pay for the research next year. And if industry officials express displeasure with that? Well, they only have themselves to blame.

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