Outgoing Maryland Governor Proposes Strongest Fracking Protections in the Nation
by Amanda Starbuck, 12/3/2014
UPDATE (June 2, 2015): A Maryland bill establishing a two-and-a-half year moratorium on fracking became law on May 30. Both the state House and Senate passed the bill by veto-proof margins. Republican Governor Larry Hogan declined to either sign or veto the bill, allowing it to go into effect. Along with temporarily banning fracking, the bill also requires the state to create fracking regulations that will go into effect when the ban is lifted.
Maryland may soon join neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania by allowing fracking in the state. Outgoing Governor Martin O’Malley announced that he will open the doors to drilling companies as long as they follow strict safeguards for protecting public health and the environment. He is developing proposed rules based on an extensive three-year study of the economic and environmental impacts of drilling in Maryland.
O’Malley previously postponed fracking in Maryland pending the release of the study. Three counties in the western part of the state are situated above the Marcellus Shale, a formation that includes reservoirs of natural gas reachable through new fracking technologies.
Proceed with Caution
The study, prepared by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and Department of the Environment, draws from numerous impact studies on gas drilling on the Marcellus and addresses concerns specific to Maryland, including protecting watersheds and state land. It also evaluates many health and safety concerns raised by critics of fracking, from air and water pollution to noise disturbances and community impacts.
From this analysis, the report creates a list of “best practices” that the agencies recommend be incorporated into any fracking regulations. They propose adopting the following requirements:
- Operators must submit a five-year drilling plan detailing the location of well pads and other infrastructure, with a focus on minimizing potential impacts. The plan must be submitted before a well permit is granted.
- Operators must also conduct at least two years of baseline monitoring of ground and surface water near well sites before obtaining a permit. Once drilling begins, operators must continue monitoring in order to determine whether fracking is causing water contamination.
- Wells must be set back from existing infrastructure. For instance, the minimum distance between a well pad and an occupied building, school, or church is 1,000 feet. A minimum of 2,000 feet must separate wells from private drinking water wells.
- Operators must submit to Maryland’s Department of the Environment the name and concentration of every chemical brought to the well site. If operators demonstrate that this information is a trade secret, they must submit a second list detailing all chemicals onsite, excluding quantities and product names. The original list (or the second list, in the case of a trade secret) must be shared with local emergency responders and be publicly available.
- Diesel is banned from use as a fracking fluid. (Federal law current allows operators to use diesel but only after obtaining a permit.)
Other recommendations include requiring noise reduction equipment at well sites and requiring operators to fix methane leaks and offset any methane emissions that occur during drilling.
These recommendations, if they become law, would give Maryland some of the strictest fracking regulations in the country. The state would be the first to require operators to submit a five-year plan prior to drilling. It would join a handful of states (such as Colorado and Wyoming) that require baseline water testing prior to drilling, although requiring two years of monitoring is unprecedented. Lastly, the state would close most chemical disclosure loopholes that plague other states, for which public interest groups have been fighting for years.
O’Malley intends to release proposed regulations this month, in his final weeks as Maryland’s governor. Any regulations would not go into effect until after Republican Governor-elect Larry Hogan takes office in January. Hogan has expressed his intention to permit fracking in the state and has vowed to carefully review any proposed regulations put forth under O’Malley’s administration.
Regardless of the outcome in Maryland, the study’s recommendations should serve as an example for other states where fracking is currently taking place. It designs safeguards based on rigorous testing at well sites, including minimum well setbacks from residences that are based on air quality data rather than industry convenience. And it proposes the strictest methane regulations in the country, helping to limit the emissions of this potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Adoption of the study’s recommendations would provide some of the most aggressive chemical disclosure regulations while substantially reducing the risks to communities from the many dangers associated with fracking.
Industry complains that these tight regulations will discourage drilling companies from operating in Maryland. However, the state has a unique opportunity to craft rigorous safeguards to address concerns that have arisen in other areas with extensive fracking operations.