(Posted by Sen. Brian Frosh.)
You may have heard reports that oil and gas companies have leased about 90,000 acres of land in Maryland for drilling in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that undergirds the Appalachians from Virginia to Southern New York and is thought to contain trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.
Natural gas offers tremendous opportunity. It is the cleanest burning fossil fuel and can heat homes, run utilities, power vehicles, and help free the nation from foreign oil. It also promises significant economic benefits for western Maryland, as it rests under parts of Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties.
While the benefits are potentially huge, so are the environmental risks. To free the gas, companies pump a toxic cocktail of chemicals, sand and water into the ground under high pressure to fracture, or “frack,” the rock formations. Hydraulic fracturing is a complicated process with many inherent challenges. Pennsylvania has had major problems with drinking water contamination due to faulty drilling wells. There have been thousands of environmental violations, spills, explosions and fires, and air pollution. Communities have to put up with waste-water storage pits that smell like a combination of sewage and gasoline and round-the-clock industrial activity. Partially treated wastewater has also been released into rivers upstream from drinking water intake pipes, a situation that threatens even people who live well away from the area above the Marcellus Shale—but well within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, threatening this national treasure.
The challenges and risks are real. But I am optimistic we can address these problems in ways that will allow safe access to the natural gas. However, since oil and gas drilling are partially exempt from important environmental laws at the federal level, it is up to Maryland—and other states—to make adequate protections.
To protect people and resources, this spring I sponsored MD Senate Bill 634 (Heather Mizeur sponsored a similar bill on the House side) which called for the Maryland Departments of the Environment and Natural Resources to undertake a study, with industry funding, of short- and long-term risks to water quality and to assess the effect of drilling on forests and natural habitats. The study would have also examined the long-term impacts to state resources and recreational lands, and proposed statutory or regulatory changes.
After passing easily in the House, the bill failed in the Senate, with industry wanting production drilling in the study’s second year, something that neither I nor the O’Malley Administration could accept. However, failure is not necessarily a bad thing. The Maryland Department of the Environment has total discretion to issue drilling permits, and it is unlikely to do so without the information that the study mandated in the bill would have provided.
When this issue resurfaces next session, the Maryland General Assembly must pass legislation to ensure we have the proper safeguards in place before we start to drill. We must not let oil and gas companies extract our resources at the expense of families and communities in Maryland.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery Co., Maryland) is chair of the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and was chair of the Maryland Senate Environment Subcommittee from 1995 to 2003. He is a Chesapeake Bay Action Plan signatory.