by David OLeary |
By David OLearyTo drill or not to drill, that is the question. Will drilling for gas in western Maryland enrich our state or cause our state to look like one of the many places portrayed in the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland?
By David O’Leary—To drill or not to drill, that is the question. Will drilling for gas in western Maryland enrich our state or cause our state to look like one of the many places portrayed in the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland?
After many hours of briefings, hearings, and public forums in the Maryland General Assembly and with the Garrett County Board of Commissioners, and many trips between western Maryland and Annapolis, it looks like most of the cards are on the table. The natural gas drilling industry and their proponents claim that they can drill wells deep underground into the Marcellus shale layer safely, and that the private property rights of those who are leasing their land are more important than those of their neighbors who prefer to retain their mineral rights and avoid the risks and damage from gas drilling on their land. Many residents of western Maryland and elsewhere are skeptical of industry claims and believe strong regulation and oversight is necessary to address a wide variety of environmental, community, and social impacts seen in neighboring states. Of course, the opportunity of selling mineral rights and gas, along with the associated drilling industry jobs and economic activity, is also attractive to many in the area.
Gas drilling in shale formations has received quite a bit of media attention in recent years due to the many and various problems. Rock formations of Marcellus shale, such as exist in many parts of Maryland, are several thousand feet underground, and only recently has drilling technology been developed to enable extraction of natural gas from this shale.
Specifically, in addition to drilling several thousand feet vertically down to the Marcellus shale layer, the drilling continues for up to several thousand feet horizontally through the shale layer. As part of the gas extraction process, the gas well is pumped full of millions of gallons of water mixed with a variety of chemicals under very high pressure combined with the use of explosives to break up the shale, a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “hydrofracking.”
The process requires a large quantity of water, which may deplete local aquifers. That water is then mixed with hydrofracking chemicals, many of which are known to be toxic. Some of this toxin-laden water is removed from the well and stored onsite or trucked to wastewater treatment plants, which are not designed to remove the chemicals. There are a wide variety of concerns about the risks of gas drilling and the associated impacts from transporting water and chemicals to and from the site, and the infrastructure related to storage, pumping, and processing of the gas at or near the drilling site. Some of the issues are shown in the documentary films Gasland and Split Estate, and have received coverage by other media outlets including the New York Times. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/us/27gas.html )
In January, bills were introduced in the Maryland General Assembly to plan for stronger regulation of gas drilling in Maryland. Residents of western Maryland and several of the statewide environmental groups worked with Delegates Heather Mizeur and Marvin Holmes and Senator Brian Frosh and their staffs, along with the leadership of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Secretary John Griffin, and Bob Summers, Acting Secretary of the Department of the Environment (MDE), to write and rewrite a bill.
The proposal creates an expert advisory commission to gather and review information about issues and best practices from around the region and nation, then write a report which informs the regulatory process. Regulations will be developed with a deadline for completion of the summer of 2013, before permits can be issued. Costs of the study and regulatory process are paid for by fees on the industry. In response to grassroots pressure, Senator Edwards and Delegate Bietzel from western Maryland introduced an alternative bill to regulate drilling, but it is not as comprehensive and does not provide sufficient time for comprehensive study and regulation of drilling and the many risks and impacts.
Committee hearings were held recently. Fortunately, many delegates and senators are responding well to the need for increased regulation that places the burden of proof of safety on the gas drilling industry and provides sufficient time to understand the implications of broad expansion of natural gas drilling in our state.
As I write this article, lobbying in Annapolis is well underway on both bills. Please call your state delegates and senator and ask for their commitment to a cautious approach and strong regulation of the new gas drilling industry as outlined in Senate Bill 634 and House Bill 852. Also, consider attending or hosting a showing the film Gasland. On the Maryland Sierra Club web site (maryland.sierraclub.org), click on Issues and then Hydrofracking to learn about current legislation status and how to see or host a showing of Gasland.
All energy sources have various costs, benefits, and impacts. The risks and impacts of new approaches to natural gas drilling are not well understood. Maryland needs to proceed carefully before permitting new gas drilling and HB 852 / SB 634 are the right approach. n
David O’Leary is the Conservation Chair for the Maryland Chapter.
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