Fracking still worrisome [Editorial]

The development of natural gas supplies located deep in the rocky landscape of Western Maryland carries significant environmental risks, but there are regulations the state can impose that would reduce those dangers. The latest study of this issue — a draft report released last Friday by Maryland's Department of the Environment and Department of Natural Resources — takes a somewhat optimistic view of that circumstance, but isn't exactly a game-changer.

The assessment looked at the various phases of the fracking process, from site preparation and drilling to production and finally, reclamation, and rated the potential risks involved from low to high. Most surprising was that the authors regarded the risk of water contamination as being "low" and at worst, "moderate."

That would seem to contradict a University of Maryland study released just two months ago that concluded there was a "moderately high" likelihood of pollution from fracking, which involves the injection of pressurized water, sand and chemicals into wells to break up underground rock and release natural gas that is trapped within it. But that study, too, recommended ways the state could reduce that risk through regulations such as keeping fracking wells a healthy distance away from drinking water wells.

But the threat to drinking water is far from the only risk involved. Traffic congestion, damage to roads, accidental releases of methane (a greenhouse gas that greatly contributes to climate change), dealing with waste from the sites as well as whatever damage might be done by pipelines needed to move the gas are also worth considering. And there are other possible problems. The most recent report speculates, for instance, that aquatic life might be affected adversely by the millions of gallons used in the process if it causes local stream levels to be lowered at the wrong time, such as during fish spawning season.

No doubt these studies are of value and help inform the commission that is advising Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly on fracking. That group is scheduled to offer its own assessment later this fall. Maryland has not permitted natural gas drilling in the Marcellus deposits since the governor signed an executive order creating the advisory panel in June of 2011. From what we've seen so far — including this most recent report — the state's cautious approach has been justified and such wariness ought to continue.

Each month that goes by brings a greater understanding of both the risks and the rewards of hydraulic fracturing. One day it's the possibility that fracking may cause earthquakes, the next it's the danger of radioactive radium in fracking wastewater, as a Duke University researcher found in Pennsylvania last year. Perhaps these threats can be managed — faulty wells are often blamed for contamination and more durable and substantial well linings might prove helpful, for example — but regulators can hardly be expected to set standards to eliminate problems about which they are not yet even aware.

Maryland is sometimes jeered by the oil and gas industry and its advocates for taking a go-slow approach. Most states with Marcellus Shale have not been so reluctant. Pennsylvania now claims more than 150,000 jobs related to the far less encumbered development of the state's natural gas resources. But what are the trade-offs? It remains unclear. We have heard such siren songs from the energy industry before from the "safe" underground mining of coal to "safe" oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and then experienced the poisoned rivers and off-shore spills that weren't supposed to take place.

This much is obvious: The longer we wait before embracing fracking, the better informed we will be. Protection of the health and welfare of people living in this state and the preservation of the environment ought to be weighed more heavily than the exploitation of a resource that is not going away. Maryland's quest to determine the "best practices" for regulating hydraulic fracturing may not be sufficient with so much still not known about its consequences. As others have pointed out, the burden in this debate is on advocates of hydraulic fracturing to prove that these myriad concerns can be addressed before the practice is ever allowed in Maryland. In other words, prove it's harmless and then we'll talk.

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