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As Maryland Moves Forward With Fracking, Questions Remain

Daniel Foster via flickr
A natural gas fracking well near Shreveport, La.

Gov. Martin O’Malley is ready to allow the controversial natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and he’s poised to propose the strictest standards in the country. But even after years of deliberation and contention, fracking in Maryland still holds more questions than answers.

Out in northern Garrett County, in far western Maryland, Frank Vitez has been waiting for years for hydraulic fracturing to come. When I visited him this fall, he took me up a hill on his property to show just how close he is to the Pennsylvania border. He knows that Pennsylvania landowners—people just like him—profit from the gas under their land. With the horizontal drilling techniques that have ushered in a new energy boom in the US, the well pads just beyond the border could be used to frack his gas.

“They could harvest the gas in all this land from Pennsylvania,” Vitez said, “if they were allowed to come under the border and come this way.”

But they’re not allowed to – hydraulic fracturing has been banned while the state has studied whether it can be done safely. And that frustrates Vitez, who could gain big by leasing the rights to drill under his property. He’s got 750 acres – some of it farmland, most of it timber. He owns the mineral rights to almost all of it – but for four years, he’s been blocked from selling them.

“I own this tree. I can sell a tree. No problem,” Vitez said. “If I want to sell a boulder I can sell a boulder. I can raise crops and sell them. I can run my cattle and sell them. But it’s my gas and they don’t let me sell it.”

Vitez isn’t the only one frustrated: Farmers who have lots of land stand to make lots of money from mineral leases based on acreage. But for Ruth Yoder, the risk to water and the environment outweighs individual property rights.

“What they want to do on their land is going to be very harmful to their neighbors, not only now but in the long term,” Yoder said. “So we have to, whether we like it or not, be our brother’s keeper. And we forget that.“

Yoder and her sister Joanna Miller live in houses right next door to each other on land their great grandfather farmed near Grantsville. Born and raised in the family farm house, they went to a two-room school down the road. In recent years, they’ve heard horror stories about water and air contamination from fracking in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. 

“I don’t know how logically anyone could think this is making good sense,” Yoder said.

Miller and Yoder attended nearly every meeting of the task force overseeing Maryland’s fracking study for the last three years, quietly hoping gas drilling never comes to their community. Miller worries gas development could force her to leave behind the land she’s known all her life.

“I love Garrett County and I like this place,” Miller said. “And I don’t want to have to think even about leaving to have a quality of life that I enjoy.”

Late last month the Department of the Environment issued a lengthy report on fracking that suggests strict standards be set in the state’s regulations. The draft report signals the end of the state’s study period – and the commission will hear public comments on the report at a public meeting this afternoon.

“We’ve set a bar, a high bar,” said Robert Summers, Maryland’s Secretary of the Environment. He says the regulations his department is writing will strike a balance -- allowing gas development’s economic benefits while heading off potential harms. “We’re confident that this is a good, solid proposal, best practices. And if these are followed and enforced, drilling can be done safely.”

“That’s a big if. We have to see if all of these regulations are actually going to be implemented and we have to make sure that there’s enough money for the state agencies to monitor it,” says Mike Tidwell, who runs Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Tidwell says many environmental groups remain unconvinced fracking can ever be done safely. But he lauds the O’Malley administration’s proposals, including mandates to curb the emission of the potent greenhouse gas methane.“Gov. O’Malley has proposed something strong and novel, and ought to be implemented immediately in every state that’s already fracking and ought to be adopted by the EPA,” he said.

Not so fast, says Drew Cobbs, who heads the Maryland Petroleum Council, an industry group. He’s worried the regulations could seriously limit where gas companies can drill. And he says companies would have to pay for years-long water quality studies before they can even explore whether a site will be profitable.

“The problem is they went too far with some of these theoretical best practices and things and I just don’t know if it’s really doable,” Cobs said.

With natural gas prices near record lows, Cobbs says companies aren’t rushing to put drills in the ground – but he worries Maryland will make rules so restrictive that gas companies will write off the state when prices tick back up.

“We’re competing against almost two dozen states for this activity, for these dollars and that activity,” Cobbs said. “So companies do have a number of choices of where they might go to develop these natural resources.

The Department of the Environment hasn’t finished writing the proposed regulations yet, but their fate is already murky. That’s because the O’Malley administration’s proposals won’t be completed until after Governor-Elect Larry Hogan takes office.

In a statement, a spokeswoman said Hogan supports natural gas exploration so long as it’s environmentally sensitive and benefits the people of western Maryland. She didn’t comment on the new report or the proposed safeguards.

The term “fracking” refers to today’s method of horizontal drilling, which uses a water and chemical mixture to access gas deep underground.  But gas development isn’t new to Garrett County. Back in the 1970s, a number of gas wells were drilled traditionally.

  When I met Bill Aiken, who works for the farm bureau in West Virginia and lives and farms in Garrett County, he pointed out a number of capped wells that dot his land. “When they’re done that footprint [is] not that noticeable,” he said. The well pads involved in contemporary hydraulic fracturing are a bit bigger, he says, but the benefits of a few years of gas development are still worth it. 

Aiken says farmers struggle these days, and he thinks allowing drilling in Garrett County will help keep farms intact. “They may look at it and say we could sell it and divvy up the money, but if we keep for gas rights we can keep up larger units and that’ll help keep it farm land,” Aiken said.

But Paul Roberts, who runs a vineyard in northwest Garrett County and sits on the state’s fracking advisory commission, says today’s hydraulic fracturing would fundamentally change Western Maryland’s rural nature. He says at least some of his neighbors have shown interest in allowing drilling on their property, highlighting just how vulnerable he may be.

“Imagine trucks going in and out 24-7. Lights. Pounding. Incredible air emissions -- basically an industrial fracking park,” Roberts said. “I can’t under any circumstances imagine how that’s going to be good for our county.”

Roberts says that image is at odds with the natural beauty and pristine wilderness driving the county’s tourism industry. He says if drilling is going to happen, it has to be with the best standards possible.

“I will never stand here and say that every well that’s drilled causes environmental calamity; obviously it does not,” Roberts said. “But there are so many people – there are people in rural Pennsylvania, people I know personally, who are dependent on church charity for drinking water because of what happened because of hydraulic fracturing.”

After more than three years of study, it’ll be months before the new rules are final – and may be years before Maryland puts those rules to the test.