After Years Of Study, Deep Divisions Over Fracking's Risks Remain

Jan 29, 2015

A natural gas fracking well near Shreveport, Louisiana.
Credit CREDIT DANIEL FOSTER VIA FLICKR

For more than three years, a state commission has been studying whether to allow hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to get at natural gas trapped in the Marcellus shale beneath the mountains of Western Maryland. Now, the commission is done, state agencies have proposed rules, but commissioners still don’t agree on the central question of whether we can frack safely.

At the center of the commission’s work is this question: How much risk is too much risk? There’s a lot of risk associated with blasting water, sand and some pretty nasty chemicals into rock thousands of feet underground to get natural gas– But can the state regulate those risks down to an acceptable level?

“With appropriate safeguards, natural gas production from the Marcellus by high volume hydraulic fracturing can be accomplished without unacceptable risks,” said Towson University geologist David Vanko, who chaired the state’s advisory commission, “if one requires a complete set and employs a suite of best practices.”

When Vanko briefed the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Wednesday on the final report, which was written by the state’s Departments of Environment and Natural Resources, he emphasized that strong regulations needed to be accompanied by monitoring and robust enforcement mechanisms.

Just before Thanksgiving, then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, proposed the strictest set of fracking regulations in the country based on that report. 

But some commissioners are crying foul on the study process. Ann Bristow, appointed as a representative of a local environmental organization, says the O’Malley Administration failed to put public health front and center. The state’s health department wasn’t officially part of the process, and only partway through was a public health official appointed.

“I would say, based on the evidence, that this was not a commission designed to answer public health questions,” Bristow says.

Bristow, who has a public health background, says just look to the north if you want to see what happens when public health is the top priority. Like Maryland, New York had a fracking moratorium and study period. But theirs was led by the state’s public health agency. Late last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned fracking citing “significant public health risks.”

“All the emerging science, the vast majority of it, is showing harm, associations of harm, and no one is demonstrating a way to do this so that those harms are mitigated,” Bristow said.

Nearly three-quarters of all peer-reviewed research on fracking has come out in the last two years. More studies – a third of the total research – were published last year than in any prior year. Little is known about the long-term effects of this new technology or which techniques will best ameliorate the harms, and Bristow says the state should take more time to study public health research that’s underway.

“We have one chance to get this right,” says Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo, D-Montgomery County. He’s set to propose an eight-year moratorium to wait for more data.

Fraser-Hidalgo says he’s lined up a couple dozen co-sponsors and is working on a Senate co-sponsor. A broad coalition of some 80 environmental organizations, community advocates, faith groups and businesses back the effort. Still, Fraser-Hidalgo says he’s not sure if there’s enough appetite in the legislature.

“It’s a challenge, it’s a bit of an uphill battle, it’s a heavy lift, but we need to get this going and we’ll cross every single one of those bridges when we come to them,” Fraser-Hidalgo says.

But Sen. George Edwards, a Republican who represents Western Maryland and also sat on the study commission, downplays concerns about public health consequences as just another delaying tactic from people who oppose fracking outright. There’s risk involved in any industry he says, risks can never be brought to zero, but that shouldn’t stop drilling.

“You use the best knowledge and technology you have at the time, put rules and regulations in place because of that, and as technology changes you change the rules and regulations,” Edwards says. “But regardless of what you do, if you get to the point you drill, you have to have enough people in place to monitor and make sure it’s done the way it’s supposed to be done.

At the background of all of this is what Maryland’s new governor will do. Edwards says fracking advocates plan to put forward some suggestions for Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, to change the proposed regulations, some of which are considered onerous to energy companies.

“We’ll end up having the toughest drilling rules in the country, but you can’t make it to the point that knowingly someone’s not going to come because of the way that it’s written,” Edwards said.

Many Democrats are waiting to see what Hogan does with the regulations. If Hogan tries to water them down, he may face a fight and strengthen support for moratorium legislation.