State to miss frack­ing dead­line

Rules are de­layed as some law­mak­ers push for per­ma­nent ban

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Scott Dance

State en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tors say they will not adopt rules to gov­ern gas drilling in Western Mary­land by Oct. 1, miss­ing a le­gal dead­line one year out from the ex­pi­ra­tion of the statewide ban on the con­tro­ver­sial prac­tice known as frack­ing.

While of­fi­cials said reg­u­la­tions are still ex­pected some time this fall, the de­lay means de­tails of how the state would man­age risks to ground­wa­ter and pub­lic health re­main un­clear as de­bate in­ten­si­fies over whether and how safely hy­draulic frac­tur­ing might oc­cur in Mary­land.

The gas-ex­trac­tion tech­nique, which in­volves in­ject­ing flu­ids into rock at high pres­sure, has been found to con­tam­i­nate nearby wa­ter sources.

Ad­vo­cates of frack­ing and op­po­nents alike have been wait­ing for the specifics of the Ho­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plans as they an­tic­i­pate heated de­bate in next year’s Gen­eral Assem­bly ses­sion.

Un­der cur­rent law, en­ergy com­pa­nies can be­gin de­vel­op­ing frack­ing op­er­a­tions in Mary­land as soon as Oct. 1, 2017. Some law­mak­ers have pledged to spon­sor leg­is­la­tion be­fore then to ban the prac­tice per­ma­nently.

Sup­port­ers of frack­ing say they aren’t con­cerned about the state miss­ing an ar­bi­trary dead­line.

Sen. Ge­orge Ed­wards, a Western Mary­land Repub­li­can whobacks frack­ing, said the more time state of­fi­cials spend vet­ting and

re­vis­ing the reg­u­la­tions, the bet­ter. The Mary­land Depart­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment re­leased an over­view of its pro­posal this sum­mer.

Crit­ics, who view those plans as a weak­en­ing of reg­u­la­tions drafted un­der Demo­cratic Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley, see the missed dead­line as trou­bling.

Law­mak­ers said they set the dead­line so they could re­view pro­posed safe­guards thor­oughly to en­sure they are as strong as pos­si­ble. Some op­po­nents of frack­ing say the de­lay strength­ens the case for a per­ma­nent ban.

“If they don’t have enough ca­pac­ity to write the reg­u­la­tions, how can we be­lieve they’ll have enough ca­pac­ity to ef­fec­tively im­ple­ment all the safe­guards?” asked Josh Tulkin, direc­tor of the Mary­land Chap­ter of the Sierra Club.

Jay Ap­per­son, a spokesman for the state en­vi­ron­men­tal agency, said work to craft frack­ing reg­u­la­tions is “very much still an on­go­ing process.”

The depart­ment added an ex­tra layer of re­view that is not re­quired by law when it re­leased the over­view of its plans in June with a 30-day win­dow for pub­lic com­ment af­ter­ward, he said. Once the depart­ment re­leases a de­tailed draft of the reg­u­la­tions, there will be another 30-day op­por­tu­nity for pub­lic in­put.

Law­mak­ers es­tab­lished the dead­line in a 2015 bill that be­came law with­out Ho­gan’s sig­na­ture. The leg­is­la­tion ex­tended a frack­ing mora­to­rium that was al­ready in place by another two years.

That time was in­tended to give state of­fi­cials time to re­search frack­ing risks and proper safe­guards, and the dead­line was meant to be strict, said Del. Ku­mar Barve, the Mont­gomery County Demo­crat who chairs the house com­mit­tee that over­sees en­ergy is­sues.

“It’s not im­por­tant; it’s manda­tory. The law re­quires it,” he said. “Once they pub­lish reg­u­la­tions, we’ll be able to as­sess whether they’re good enough or not.”

Not all of those in­volved in the frack­ing de­bate agree.

Drew Cobbs, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Mary­land Petroleum Coun­cil, said he doesn’t think the tim­ing of the pro­posal makes a dif­fer­ence as long as it’s re­leased be­fore the leg­isla­tive ses­sion, which be­gins in Jan­uary.

State en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tors are still con­sid­er­ing dozens of let­ters they re­ceived in re­sponse to a set of is­sue pa­pers they re­leased in June that de­tailed the Ho­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion’s planned ap­proach to frack­ing. The plans in­cluded sig­nif­i­cant changes to reg­u­la­tions a com­mis­sion ap­pointed by Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley spent sev­eral years de­vel­op­ing.

Those changes in­clude al­low­ing gas wells to be drilled closer to homes and wells and re­duc­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal test­ing re­quire­ments, but also re­quir­ing more lay­ers of cas­ing around wells and pro­hibit­ing drilling near three reser­voirs in Gar­rett County.

The let­ters, which the depart­ment pro­vided to The Bal­ti­more Sun, in­clude con­cerns that the pro­posed reg­u­la­tions would be too lax, and oth­ers sug­gest­ing they would be the tough­est in the na­tion.

Hun­dreds of en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, en­ergy in­dus­try or­ga­ni­za­tions and res­i­dents have weighed in on the is­sue in writ­ing or at pub­lic meet­ings. Some are con­cerned about health risks, oth­ers with the state in­fring­ing on their prop­erty rights.

David Vanko, dean of Tow­son Univer­sity’s math and science pro­grams, spent four years lead­ing the O’Mal­ley-ap­pointed frack­ing com­mis­sion, which dis­banded af­ter is­su­ing its rec­om­men­da­tions in 2015. He wrote to the Ho­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion that its re­vi­sions could make the risks of drilling “too great to ac­cept.”

“The 2015 reg­u­la­tions are a good pro­posal and yet there are still some ma­jor ‘ifs’ as­so­ci­ated with them — if there’s solid reg­u­la­tion, if there’s solid en­force­ment, if there’s ad­e­quate en­vi­ron­men­tal mon­i­tor­ing,” he said in an in­ter­view. “It’s easy to erode those ‘ifs’ lit­tle by lit­tle, which is what some of the rec­om­mended changes did.”

Res­i­dents were di­vided in their com­ments. Na­dine Gra­ba­nia joined the Sierra Club and Cit­i­zen Shale in crit­i­ciz­ing the Ho­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach.

“If Mary­land goes for­ward with frack­ing, un­der any reg­u­la­tory scheme, but cer­tainly with this fail­ure, his­tory will show it is the first state to per­mit this ul­tra-haz­ardous ac­tiv­ity with ‘eyes wide open’ to its un­ac­cept­able risks,” the Friendsville woman wrote.

But oth­ers sug­gested op­po­si­tion comes largely from ac­tivists who don’t live in Western Mary­land, where some are ea­ger to be­gin frack­ing, and should re­spect lo­cal prop­erty de­ci­sions.

“With all the safe­guards be­ing built into the re­vised drilling reg­u­la­tions, the chance of an ac­ci­dent would ap­pear lit­tle to none,” Oak­land res­i­dent Harold E. Har­ris wrote.

The Sierra Club fa­vors ban­ning frack­ing al­to­gether. But Tulkin said he wants to see how or whether the state in­cor­po­rates the pub­lic com­ments into the reg­u­la­tions.

“We will ab­so­lutely of­fer sub­stan­tive feed­back on any reg­u­la­tions re­leased, but we’re not op­ti­mistic,” he said.

But even as stake­hold­ers await the frack­ing rules, some of the de­bate likely won’t even ad­dress the pro­posal.

“That’s not where this dis­cus­sion needs to go; that com­pletely misses the point,” said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Bal­ti­more County Demo­crat who has pledged to in­tro­duce a bill ban­ning frack­ing per­ma­nently. “As far as I’m con­cerned they can hold off on the reg­u­la­tions for­ever.”

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