To Frack or Not to Frack?

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 27, 2016–With apologies to W. Shakespeare, the continuing battle over gas exploration in Maryland’s far-western Garrett County reads like this:

“To frack or not to frack, that is the question.

“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer environmentalists’ slings and arrows of an outrageous drilling ban or take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing them, let the state moratorium lapse, crack open Marcellus shale and unleash the fortunes flowing from natural gas.”

It’s a furious dispute which has dragged on for years.

Environmentalists view hydraulic fracturing of black Marcellus shale in mountainous Garrett County as pure evil sure to pollute drinking water, pristine streams, the health of citizens and lay waste to 100,000 acres in the state’s most remote county.

Proponents say that’s buncombe. Done safely and with plenty of state oversight, “fracking” as it is called can be accomplished – and is accomplished all over the country – without damning side effects.

(Fracking has been used in well production since 1950, but didn’t become the superstar of oil drilling until this century, thanks to recent advances in petro-geology, fluid dynamics, engineering, computing, horizontal drilling and 3D seismic imaging.)

Cracking Open Shale

Today, one-half of all U.S. crude oil production and two-thirds of all natural gas production comes from wells that employ fracking – sending a mix of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals through underground pipes drilled horizontally that cracks open ancient layers of shale, thus releasing previously unreachable pools of petroleum liquids.

Yet in Maryland, the “shale revolution” hasn’t happened.

Under intense pressure from a core Democratic voting group – environmentalists – Gov. Martin O’Malley declared a moratorium in 2011 while a scientific study was undertaken.

Much to the activists’ dismay, the panel concluded fracking could be done safely if the state imposed strong regulations. This led O’Malley to promulgate tough, restrictive rules for fracking in 2014.

Unsatisfied, anti-frackers got the legislature to approve another two-year moratorium in 2015. Gov. Larry Hogan refused to sign the bill but didn’t stop it from becoming law.

That led to new state regulations now awaiting approval by a joint legislative panel. Meanwhile, the moratorium runs out in October.

Push for Complete Ban

Environmentalists are determined to push through a permanent fracking ban in Maryland this legislative session. Whether there would be enough votes to overturn a likely Hogan veto remains in question.

Forgotten in this bitter back-and-forth are the land owners of isolated Garrett County who sorely need the financial boost that could come through drilling on their lands.

Farming communities in Pennsylvania and West Virginia have reaped huge lease and royalty payments from oil companies who hit pay dirt in those two states.

In fact, Pennsylvania now ranks No. 1 in shale gas production (ahead of Texas) and West Virginia ranks No. 3. They are the prime beneficiaries of the massive amounts of Marcellus shale under land in that part of the country.

But petroleum firms no longer show interest in Maryland.

Deterrents to Fracking

First there’s the regulatory and legislative uncertainty. No company wants to risk tens of millions of dollars in a state where the door could be slammed shut at any time.

Second, there’s the extremely low price of natural gas, a trend that shows no signs of abating, possibly for decades.

Third, there’s the small amount of reachable petroleum liquids in the Marcellus shale beneath Garrett County and a portion of neighboring Alleghany County. The numbers just don’t add up for oil companies.

Tapping into shale formations with new technologies revolutionized this nation’s energy situation. Fracked wells tripled in just five years. Drilling has been most intense in North Dakota, Montana, Texas, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

But this fracking phenomenon also has driven down the price of natural gas to such low levels that exploration in questionable regions like Maryland is uneconomic.

A law permanently banning fracking in Maryland would foreclose any chance of Garrett landowners ever benefiting from higher natural gas prices and breakthroughs in drilling technologies that might make hydraulic fracturing safe and secure.

Events beyond the state’s control already have determined that fracking won’t happen in Maryland any time soon. That plus Hogan’s new regulations – said to be the toughest in the country – appear to provide assurance that environmentalists’ worst nightmares won’t come true.

That should have ended this rancorous discussion but it hasn’t. Environmentalists want a grand-slam home run that purges even the thought of fracking ever occurring in Maryland.

But forever is an awfully long time, a fact that may dissuade enough lawmakers from turning their backs totally on Garrett County land owners.

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2 thoughts on “To Frack or Not to Frack?

  1. William Neil

    Hardly a neutral analysis or perspective: land-owner rights uber alles? Tough to maintain this position as a journalist when your fellow colleagues at major Pittsburgh papers and investigative funds have demonstrated a much higher water pollution and risk ratio to wells/pads drilled than the PA environmental staff found…no surprise there…that point is relevant though, because it showed another class of affected property owners: adjacent water well users and farmers…add in the air impacts which leave the well drilling site and can be recorded as far away as the Balt.-DC area…and the fact the Potomac River headwaters are in the fracking zones and flow south to have an impact – perhaps – on millions.

    But Mr. Rascovar cries for the denied property owners: there are lots of ways to make this up to them if the legislature could drop its rule forbidding addressing the impacts of one piece of legislation by moving compensatory others…

    Do I see a connection between Senate President Miller’s long history on the side of “big chicken producers” and the failure to clean up the Chesapeake, and his siding now with Western Maryland’s “only chance” (besides prisons he said in a Jan. 30th letter to me – and I am sure many others “out here) for economic development, and the land-owners who would benefit from fracking? You bet I do.

    In the economic universe of strict limits to possibilities constructed between the Republican Right and Democratic corporate centrists, represented respectfully by the West. MD delegation and Senate President Miller – they do indeed, by their constantly repeated words, represent the history denying possibilities that their narrow policy range is constructed from. And we all suffer because of it.

    I’m in favor of a permanent ban because it would deliver certainty to all parties and let us get on with the very hard task – as it is in so much of red state America – of building economic opportunities the status quo will never deliver – without destroying what’s left of nature in our most rural places.

    I invite you, Mr. Rascovar, sometime, to step out of the Annapolis bubble.

  2. Pat Downie

    You neglected to mention any of the research done during the moratorium. There were studies done by Johns Hopkins stating that fracking and the methane leaks would be adverse to health in the area and across the state. And any legislation can be over turned so a ban is not forever. AND since the gas is not to be used in MD but piped/shipped across the state and then to Europe – MD does not get enough tax revenue to cover the increase health costs or any of the environmental degradation – small or large (earthquakes)

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