A new sign outside the state's monthly Marcellus shale advisory commission meeting. //photo by Savage Mountain Earth First!

A new sign outside the state’s monthly Marcellus shale advisory commission meeting. //photo by Savage Mountain Earth First!

As Maryland closes in on a decision whether to allow fracking, two key studies — on economic and health effects  — are in play. One doesn’t deliver on its main mission. The other has huge gaps, not of its own making but because the science it relied on is incomplete.

So, if the process works, the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission and the Maryland Departments of the Environment (MDE) and Natural Resources (DNR) should at the very least, with these studies in mind, tell Gov. Martin O’Malley that they don’t have the information necessary to decide whether fracking poses unacceptable risks to the state’s residents. That’s what the governor, in his 2011 executive order, said he wanted to know.

visions of dollar signs

The biggest trouble with Maryland’s $150,000 economic study of fracking was what was missing: the effect on tourism. A few years of boom followed by a bust will ensue, the report said. But we suspected that before we even took a peek. Western Maryland will get some jobs and tax revenue. We knew that in advance, too. All that is documented with rows of numbers and dollar signs.

What everyone wanted to know was whether fracking would harm tourism, the main economic engine in Western Maryland, and, if so, by how much?  We still don’t know.

Dr. Daraius Irani and his Towson University team’s economic report on fracking in Western Maryland took such a pummeling at the commission meeting Monday at Frostburg University that one observer remarked that he was beginning to feel sorry for the economist. In addition, an economist living in Garrett County is already on record asking for his taxpayer money back.

“I knew our report would be disliked by both sides of the argument,” Irani said, as if that were the problem. It’s not.

He apologized a couple times and said the team at the university’s Regional Economic Studies Institute is rewriting and reorganizing the report, released in May, because of numerous complaints. The “well is dry,” though, he said, and “every hour is on our dime. We’re doing this because we want a good report.”

He said the team was unable to get sufficient data on drilling’s effect on tourism. He mentioned, however, one Utah study indicating that tourism and extractive industry could coexist with sufficient geographic separation. “If you have extractive industry, you probably wouldn’t want to put them next to your natural wonders,” he said. How large of a separation? He didn’t know.

The report found that property values within a half-mile of drilling would decline 7 to 9 percent, a falloff that would continue for years after drilling had ended. Turns out, though, that this estimate is based on data from conventional gas wells, which don’t produce nearly the disruption that comes with fracking. The report also failed to examine costs from accidents or well-water contamination. (Costs to community health and emergency systems weren’t part of the study scope — or any of the state’s study scopes, for that matter.) The report also couldn’t say how many local residents would get the boom-year jobs, although Irani said he would try to include an estimate in the rewritten report.

The report included a number of warnings, though, including that nonresidents might “avoid Western Maryland if they perceive the local trails, streams, and woodlands to be of lesser quality near drilling activity — ultimately impacting the popular second-home market of Garrett County.”

And the report quotes another study, prepared in New York: “[T]he regional industrialization associated with widespread drilling could do substantial damage…threatening the long‐term growth of tourism.”

Curious language indicates that “tourism-related businesses (hotels, restaurants, retail, etc.) can provide the amenities needed by shale drilling workers.” Leaving us to imagine drillers relaxing at B&B’s and taking a kayak ecotour in their off time.

Kayaks on the shore of Deep Creek Lake.//photo by Crede Calhoun

Kayaks on the shore of Savage River Reservoir.//photo by Crede Calhoun

And then this warning: “[T]ourism can be part of long-term economic development strategy, whereas employment growth associated with drilling is typically short-term.”

Overall, Irani said, the report doesn’t recommend whether to allow fracking. “This is an opportunity for the counties to make decisions about whether they want to pursue this or not,” he said.

Leaving several commissioners fuming.

“I heard you just now recommend….that the counties need to look closely at the options and weigh the pros and cons. That’s what we get for $150,000?” said Paul Roberts, a farmer and winery owner who is the citizen representative on the commission.

Irani said he had described the lack of data to the departments last summer but had already commissioned the contingent valuation survey (an economic tool to gauge how much people would be willing to pay to protect the environment and avoid drilling). “We tried basically, as best we could, to squeeze in the tourism study. …The issue is really data. There are not any good data.”

“We agreed that was a principal part of your job,” Roberts continued. “What else would we be doing this for, except this?”

Irani called the report an objective analysis. “We tried to walk that fine line. There are no clear answers,” he said. “Drilling and tourism can exist as one, depending on the separation of the two.” And, “I apologize. I just don’t have the data.”

“We failed to get at a central issue in this debate,” said Roberts, who also said he would would be writing the governor to ask for money for another study.

“We don’t have the answers to so many things that could cost this region so much money,” Commissioner Ann Bristow said.

Commissioner and Del. Heather Mizeur said the state had initially hoped to fund the studies with fees from land leases. At that time, MDE and DNR officials estimated they would need $4 million. When the legislation failed during two sessions, O’Malley approved $1.5 million for studies. Maryland gets credit for studying before fracking, Mizeur said, but the funding and studies “have been woefully inadequate to get at the range of questions we had.”

Many in the audience also expressed grave disappointment with the report.

Michael Bell, Ph.D., an economist at George Washington University who said he operates a tourism-related business in the Deep Creek area with his wife, said the report “really doesn’t address the question that would affect my livelihood and my ability to retire.” In addition, in a comment about the report posted at the state’s study commission website, Bell wrote: “If [I] had turned in a report like this I would not have received payment for the work because it would be unacceptable. As a taxpayer, I want my money back.”

“We wanted to know the impact on tourism from drilling,” said Eric Robison, a co-founder of Citizen Shale and a member of the county’s Shale Gas Advisory Committee. “Now it’s been reduced to a sideline.”

“It’s extremely self-evident that the linkage of tourism and property values … is the elephant in the room,” said Paul Durham of the Garrett County Board of Realtors. “We have to study it and report out on it before making any decisions.” The Board of Realtors also issued a press release days before the meeting saying it opposed fracking in the Deep Creek Lake Watershed because of research indicating a 22 percent loss in property values in drilling areas.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the unknowns have to do with risk … and more of the knowns have to do with benefits,” said John Quilty, also a member of the county’s shale advisory committee.

Ken Braitman of Frostburg (and Bristow’s husband) picked up on Irani’s recommendation not to drill near natural wonders: “The whole county is a natural wonder.”

into the red zone

The health report, previewed in June and based on a review of available scientific literature, outlined the many hazards associated with drilling, especially from air pollution, an overburdened local health-care system, and dangers for gas workers. Those working in the industry, for example, are at risk from “silica sand [which causes silicosis], hydrogen sulfide, and diesel particulate matter, as well as fatalities from truck accidents, which accounted for 49% of oil and gas extraction fatalities in 2012, … mental distress, suicide, stress, and substance abuse.”

The report includes eight scorecards about the hazards, each derived from adding up a number of risk factors documented in scientific studies — such as duration of exposure, frequency of exposure, likelihood of health effects, magnitude of health effects, and effectiveness of setbacks. A summary of the scorecards is here:

health summary

Worth noting is that the scorecards for water contamination and cumulative risks  — with hazards ranked as “moderately high” — would have been in the “high” risk, red zone with an extra point or two.

water graphiccumulative graphic

And they got just one point in several categories only because the study team couldn’t determine the risk:  “[E]vidence regarding the magnitude/severity of health effect could not be determined because of insufficient data.” Without more data, these categories, with their promise of “moderately” high risk, offer a bit of comfort where none might be warranted.

The report includes 52 recommendations for reducing the hazards, including full disclosure of frack chemicals and no allowance for trade secrets. (The state’s proposed best practices make some allowances for trade secrets.) The report also recommends a minimum setback of 2,000 feet from residential property lines for wells and compressors that don’t use electric motors. (The state’s proposed best practices list 1,000 foot setbacks from homes, schools and other occupied buildings.) Even the greater setback, though, has no scientific basis. One of the three experts invited to review the health report, John L. Adgate, Ph.D, of the Colorado School of Public Health, wrote, “additional measurements, modeling, and knowledge about processes on well pads are needed to address the scientific basis for setbacks.” ( Comments from all reviewers are here.)

Other recommendations include: starting a birth outcomes surveillance system (to watch for birth defects, stillbirths and low birth weights found in some studies); start a study of dermal, mucosal and respiratory irritation (reports are numerous of residents complaining of rashes, nosebleeds and asthma in drilling areas); develop a funding mechanism for public health studies; require air, water and soil monitoring to protect the community and workers; assess whether standard setbacks are sufficient; require monitoring of leaking methane, a powerful greenhouse gas; and train emergency and medical personnel to be able to care for the industry workers.

“There are a lot of unfunded mandates here,” Bristow said.

And a lot of monitoring by communities: “Engage local communities in monitoring and ensuring that setback distances are properly implemented.” And “Create a mapping tool for community members using buffer zones (setback distance) around homes, churches, schools, hospitals, daycare centers, public parks and recreational water bodies.”

And many unknowns, acknowledged in a section called Limitations. The industry is new, the science is limited, money is short, and some illnesses might not show up for years.

“To do original research is $15 million or so … and [would] take 10 years,” said Dr. Clifford S. Mitchell, a commissioner and director of the state’s Environmental Health Bureau at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “What we’re doing in the country is we are doing that study without intending to do that study. … In Pennsylvania, they’re doing [research] on their population.”

“So, perhaps we will continue the experiment here,” Commissioner Nick Weber muttered.

Would the recommendations mitigate adverse impacts, taking a high to a medium, Commissioner Harry Weiss asked.

“It doesn’t say you can lower a score by 10 points if you adopt this recommendation,” said Mitchell, who outlined the report but deferred many questions until next month’s meeting, when the study team would be present. The recommendations would only bring some improvement and help prepare Maryland, he said.

Research into the hazards of tobacco took many years, Bristow said. “We are really looking at exactly the same kind of problem.” She encouraged the commission to “stand up and say we’ve got to have answers.”

Rebecca Ruggles of the Maryland Environmental Health Network, praised the report as a “momentous” start. “Other states are not doing experiments. They are experimenting on their populations,” she said. In a press release issued about the report, she said, “This report should be viewed as Maryland’s first, not last, inquiry into health impacts. The work is not complete.”

on high alert

A new sign was outside the meeting room Monday:

No backpacks

No bags

No packages

Guards checked bags. A Frostburg student’s hoisting of a jug of brown water during last month’s meeting triggered the heightened concern for security and safety.

Later, Mitchell advised commissioners to move to seats in the audience so as not to strain their shoulders while turning to view his PowerPoint slides.

Security guards check bags outside the monthly shale advisory committee meeting.//photo by Savage Mountain Earth First!

Security guards check bags outside the monthly shale advisory committee meeting.//photo by Savage Mountain Earth First!

If we are concerned about backpacks and ergonomics, we should be on high alert about contaminated air and water; climate-changing methane; trucks chewing up and crashing on narrow, winding roads; babies born too small or with birth defects; asthma; skin rashes; falling property values; loss of peace and quiet; unmeasured threats to tourism and food businesses built on healthy forests, rivers and farmland; and an energy future built on fracked gas, snaking pipelines and compressor stations dotting the landscape. Maryland’s western counties are worried about revenue gaps, closing schools, and young people moving away, but grasping at fracking seems the most unimaginative and dangerous of solutions.

As both these reports show, too much about fracking is unknown. Much of what we do know isn’t good. The governor’s executive order creates a false deadline. Instead of rushing to meet it, the commission and state departments should acknowledge what they don’t know. And ask for more time for the research to unfold.

Comment on the health study by Oct. 3 here or send an email to dhmh.envhealth@maryland.gov

The official comment period for the economic study is closed, but send emails to marcellus.advisory@maryland.gov

–elisabeth hoffman

 

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A Frostburg resident’s anger and frustration burst through the typically methodical proceedings of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission meeting Friday.

Gabriel Echeverri refused to wait six hours until the designated half hour at the end of the meeting when the public gets to speak. “I have an issue with you all debating for hours about the most publicly acceptable way of coming and destroying our homes and poisoning our waters while we have to sit here and listen to all of it,” he told the commission.

Chairman David Vanko tried several times to quiet him, noting that Echeverri didn’t have to “listen to all of it” — although Vanko added that he hoped he would.

“We do have to listen to all of it,” Echeverri said, “to wait ‘til the end, where you so magnanimously offer us the scraps of time left to say our little pittance.” Then he raised up a jug of murky brown water. “This is poison. This is mercury, this is uranium, radioactive,” said Echeverri, who in February was arrested in Cumberland with three others for civil disobedience while protesting Dominion’s plans to liquefy and export fracked gas from Cove Point. “You are talking about poisoning our waters, and poisoning our families, and poisoning our land.  And I refuse to accept that. I refuse to just sit here and listen while you do that.” At some point, a security guard slipped inside the lecture hall at Frostburg University’s Dunkle Hall.

Echeverri said he would leave, taking the jug with him “because I don’t trust you to deal with it properly.” Under the state’s proposed best practices, drillers would have to ship frack waste to other, more accommodating states, a plan Echeverri called “completely unacceptable.” Before heading out, he said, “I don’t know about you, but I say ‘No fracking, no compromise.’ ”

savage mountain earth first

Savage Mountain Earth First! logo.

As the commission rushes to complete its mission, area activists have taken note. On July 3, Savage Mountain Earth First! set up a Facebook community.  “We declare ourselves as a contingent of residents of western maryland who will not stand for the degradation of this land. No compromise,” the group’s page says. So far, 129 people have Liked the page. Over the July 4 holiday, two banners were hoisted on the overpass at Sideling Hill on I-68: “Welcome to Western Maryland” and “No Fracking Allowed!”

As Echeverri left and in the brief lull created while state agency computers were being hooked up, others also asked to speak, forcing a reversal of the usual agenda at the 30th meeting of the commission.

“I do not want fracking here,” said Susan Snow of Frostburg. Industry takes advantage of people who aren’t fully knowledgeable about fracking and then “destroys their land,” she said, leaving them unable to move. And if the gas is shipped overseas from the proposed export facility at Cove Point, Marylanders won’t even benefit. Only a few will get rich while the others suffer, she said. “I am very passionate about it because this is my home. … I say ‘No fracking, no way.’ “

“I want you to take in the whole human costs,” said Amy Fabbri of Allegany County. Extractive industries have long made the few rich while sickening residents and leaving behind ruined land. “I’m a mother, and I think long term,” she said.

Jim Guy of Oldtown in Allegany asked how the commission would determine what was an “unacceptable risk” and how it would decide if fracking would pose such a risk. The charge of the commission, according to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s 2011 executive order is to determine “whether and how” fracking can be accomplished without “unacceptable risks of adverse impacts” to public health and safety and the environment.

That’s a question the commission and state officials have for the most part dodged. Only because Commissioner Nick Weber pressed the issue of determining and analyzing risk at every opportunity did the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) decide to conduct an in-house risk assessment. Once that report is complete, Weber said, the community will have to decide if it can tolerate the risks and if regulations will mitigate the risks sufficiently. If the community gets to decide.

Commissioner Ann Bristow said some studies have documented birth defects and low birth weights in fracking areas. The commission and then politicians will have to “weigh the lifetime of costs to the community against what would be gained” by a few people. “I’m not a politician,” she said. “I’m someone who is trying to work through a mountain of data that’s emerging.” And in the absence of science, best practices for fracking should not be accepted, she said.

As if on cue, though, the state’s “interim final” report of the how best to frack in Maryland was posted online yesterday. Interim, because the commission, MDE and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have yet to see, much less evaluate, the risk assessment, the final health study and a traffic study. The report identifies “practices that we believe will be as protective, or more protective, than those in place currently in other states,” according to a letter submitted with the report from the heads of DNR and MDE.

The whole discussion brought the commission full circle to reflect for an illuminating moment on what, precisely, had been its mission for the past three years. Commissioner Harry Weiss, a Pennsylvania attorney, said he thought the commission was to assume fracking would happen and make recommendations. Over the years, others have expressed similar sentiment. The confusion perhaps arises from the full title of the commission, Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission — even though no one has determined that “safe drilling” is possible and many studies have suggested the opposite.

But Vanko said the commission was “not asked to assume drilling” would happen and was charged with advising  MDE and DNR.

“You need to say this is unacceptable,” Susan Snow said.

“We might do that,” Vanko said.

“That would be awesome,” Snow said.

“We could say that we don’t believe it’s an unacceptable risk,” Weiss said.

Or the commission might not be able to reach a consensus, Vanko said.

Bristow said she wasn’t convinced that fracking would be permitted. During the years that the commission has been working, research has begun to emerge — in spite of industry’s attempts to stop it through gag orders and nondisclosure agreements. “We just know the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “I don’t’ buy that [fracking in Maryland] is a foregone conclusion.”

MDE and DNR are a couple months from issuing a final report based on the commission’s work. The last scheduled meeting is in September, and MDE senior policy adviser Brigid Kenney said a final report would probably be the topic of the October meeting.

Revealing how much is at stake, the meeting included a slide show from a field trip last month to fracked communities in West Virginia. Some commissioners and MDE and DNR staff had previously been on a Chevron-choreographed tour of a Pennsylvania frack site. “A very nice tour,” Vanko said. This time the host was West Virginia Host Farms, a group of concerned landowners living with fracking. This tour was not so nice. Water buffaloes (wrapped for heating) were visible at homes in several areas. Residents didn’t know what had happened to the water; the company had just provided replacement water. It was all a big secret. Commissioners said they had counted many, many trucks on the roads. They saw a couple frack pads as well as large tanks called shark tanks, for holding wastewater. They saw staging areas with many tanks and pipes. Vented tanks had a strong odor. Potholes. Buckled asphalt that scraped the bottom of the commissioners’ vehicle. Vanko reported a high level of suspicion between the drillers and the tour hosts and commissioners. Lots of erosion. Loud compressor stations that run round-the-clock. Several commissioners noted that Maryland would not allow some of those practices, including all that erosion.

“In a state without regulations, industry is doing exactly what it wants,” said Bristow, who went on the field trip. “I see no data on the ground of industry doing any more than they are forced to do,” she said, “because the name of the game is to get as much out of the ground as fast as they can.” Maryland might claim superiority, she said, but consider the comparison.

Being somewhat better than West Virginia and other states is still abysmal.

–elisabeth hoffman

 

living with fracking

June 18, 2014

garrett county by crede calhoun

Unfractured Garrett County. //photo by Crede Calhoun

Despite frequent strong objections last week from three of its members, the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commissioners signed off on — or voted that they could “live with” — a set of best practices for fracking in Maryland.

Here are a few practices the majority accepted or said it could live with:

  • cultural and historic sites, state and federal parks and trails, wildlife management areas, scenic and wild rivers and scenic byways 300 feet (the length of a football field) from the edge of a frack pad;
  • aquatic habitat (such as streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, seeps and wetlands) 450 feet from the edge of frack pads;
  • irreplaceable natural areas and wild lands 600 feet from the edge of drill pads and permanent infrastructure;
  • homes, schools and other occupied buildings 1,000 feet from the edge of a frack site;
  • private and public water sources 2,000 feet from the drill hole (with exceptions that could allow drilling within 1,000 feet of a gas well).

The centerpiece of the best practices is the mandatory Comprehensive Gas Development Plan (CGDP), an overarching timeline and siting of “clustered drilling pads” and infrastructure. A public meeting is also part of this CGDP, giving property owners, local officials and organizations up to 60 days to comment. If your property is within 2,500 feet of a proposed drill site, you’ll be notified. No drilling would be allowed on state lands or within the watersheds of the Broadford Lake, Piney and Savage reservoirs.

The three frequently dissenting commissioners — Ann Bristow of the Savage River Watershed Association, citizen representative and farmer Paul Roberts, and Nick Weber of Trout Unlimited — had wanted to delay the best practices vote until the risk assessment and health study were complete. They asked how the best practices would be updated to reflect those reports, along with evolving science.

Roberts also asked whether a fundraising event for Gov. Martin O’Malley at the D.C. headquarters of America’s Natural Gas Alliance had any bearing on the rush to finish the best practices. Robert M. Summers, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), who occasionally attends these monthly meetings, called out from the back of the small and crowded classroom at Allegany College that “the campaign is completely separate” from government offices. “So, there is no connection whatsoever.”

Weber said repeatedly that too many of the best practices, from flaring to cementing to casing, seemed to be mere suggestions urging drillers to “Do the right thing” and pointing to American Petroleum Institute guidelines. Drillers need to avoid this or minimize that, he said, and are granted altogether too much leeway. Weber, a scientist formerly with the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, has long argued that the state should develop best practices only after analyzing the risks fracking poses to human and animal health and the environment.

But that’s not how the state is proceeding.

Brigid Kenney, a senior policy adviser at MDE, said the in-house risk assessment will analyze potential harms in light of this snapshot of best practices. Based on that analysis, if a risk were still deemed too high, she said, MDE would consider additional practices. The votes, she said, will appear in an appendix to the final best practices report. “I should point out: It’s two years late already,” Kenney said of the best practices report.

The governor’s June 2011 executive order setting up the three-year study commission said the best practices were due in August 2012, but progress was slowed by lack of funding. Drs. Keith Eshleman and Andrew Elmore delivered their best practices recommendations to the commission in February 2013, and the commission, MDE and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have been working on them on and off since then.

Worth noting here is that the best practices will be the basis for updating the state’s regulations, which until now have dealt only with conventional drilling and mining. In fact, the state had been months away from granting permits for fracking in the Marcellus Shale under Garrett and Allegany counties under existing regulations when concerned residents raised alarms, setting in motion the advisory commission and what amounts to the state’s three-year moratorium. The 15-member commission, working (without pay) with MDE and DNR, is charged with determining whether fracking “can be accomplished without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources.” That determination has not yet been made.

Jeffrey Kupfer, a fellow at the Asia Society and former senior adviser at Chevron, urged fellow commissioners to press on with the best practices votes. “This is MDE’s and DNR’s report. We play a role in this, but at the end of the day, it’s their words on the paper. It’s their report,” he said on a conference phone line. “We don’t need to push the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope. A ‘best practice’ is something we’ve seen somewhere else and that works.”

Given the practices and accidents in other states and threats emerging in health studies, Kupfer’s definition of a best practice could fall well short of the “gold standard” to which state officials say they aspire.

But the vote commenced, with each commissioner indicating by a show of hands whether the proposed standard was 1) “appropriate,” 2) might not be appropriate “but I can live with it” or 3) “not appropriate because_______.”

VOTING ON THE CGDP

First up for a vote was the CGDP, which, Kenney said, “is the most important thing we can do to minimize impacts.” The state would require a company or group of companies to seek approval for a drilling plan covering a large area and including the location of well pads, roads, pipelines and other infrastructure.

Although the state’s goal has been to have the best practices grounded in science, Roberts said, no research demonstrates that CGDPs reduce harms. In fact, John Quigley, who oversaw similar development plans for fracking in Pennsylvania’s state forests and who produced a report for Maryland saying the CGDPs would be a win-win for the business and the environment, testified in a lawsuit last month that the impact on forests in his state had been “underestimated.”

“There are going to be impacts,” said Commissioner Stephen M. Bunker of the Nature Conservancy. He said his organization is developing a tool to determine where best to locate roads and gas lines to “minimize impact on the landscape.”

To which Roberts replied: “But as someone who lives out here, what I’m concerned about here is a 40-acre industrial fracking compound 1,000 feet from my house.”

“There is nothing showing [the CGDP] is consistently superior to other techniques,” Bristow said. The CGDP might lessen forest fragmentation, she said, but it doesn’t address threats to public health. In fact, she said, “intense aggregation [of wells] may be worse for public health.” Workers and nearby residents will be exposed to more air emissions, for example. The risk of explosion and well casing failure might also increase. “The point is that [the CGDP] is a land-use decision. It is not a public health model.” she said.

Commissioners who voted that the CGDP was an appropriate practice were: David Vanko, chairman and Towson University dean; state Sen. George C. Edwards; Pennsylvania attorney Harry Weiss; Bunker from Nature Conservancy; Oakland Mayor Peggy Jamison; Garrett Commissioner James M. Raley; and Clifford S. Mitchell M.D., director of the Environmental Health Bureau of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Kupfer said he was a 2 — he could “live with” the CGDPs — or was between a 2 and a 3. He said he supported the idea “in principle, but my concern is the way it’s laid out here it’s not workable in practice” for industry.

Voting that the CGDP was “not appropriate” were Bristow, Roberts and Weber.

(Allegany Commissioner William R. Valentine couldn’t attend because he was assessing flood damage from several days of heavy rain in his county. Commissioners Heather Mizeur, Shawn Bender and Dominick E. Murray didn’t attend.)

BUFFERS FROM FRACKING

Voting on setbacks yielded similar split votes. The separation between the well pad’s edge of disturbance and streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, seeps, wetlands, reservoirs and 100-year floodplains would be 450 feet. Again, Bristow, Roberts and Weber dissented. “I don’t see 450 feet as protective” of agricultural uses, or for humans and other animals, Bristow said.

Of the distance protecting wildlands and other special conservation areas, Bristow and Roberts dissented. “It’s shocking to me that Maryland is going to [allow a drill pad] 600 feet from an irreplaceable natural area,” Roberts said.

Mitchell joined Bristow, Roberts and Weber in opposing the 300-foot setback from cultural and historical sites, state and federal parks, trails, wildlife. He said “aesthetic issues” and noise were at stake and he wanted to see the health study results before deciding if that buffer would be sufficient.

The buffer of 1,000 feet from occupied buildings fails to protect farm animals, Bristow said. “We don’t have data on goats and cows … [and] we’re going to be eating their byproducts. It’s not protective enough.” That setback also ignores undeveloped property, Roberts said. But Kenney as well as Commissioner Bunker said that was a local property rights matter beyond the scope of the commission.

Kupfer, the Chevron representative, joined Bristow, Roberts and Weber in opposing the 2,000-foot setback from private drinking wells. Kupfer dissented because the setback seemed too large: “This one seems over the top and unsubstantiated.” Roberts, however, has long urged 1-kilometer (3,280-feet) setbacks, based in part on Duke University research that was presented to the commission in April. At the suggestion of Chairman Vanko, the state will run the risk assessment using the 1-kilometer setback as well as the proposed 2,000 feet.

DISCLOSURE OF TOXIC CHEMICALS

The best practice on chemical disclosure satisfied no one, although, again, many could “live with it.” Kenney said Maryland would have the “most stringent regulation” in the nation, requiring disclosure of toxic chemicals and their concentration used at a frack site. Companies claiming a trade secret, however, could withhold the brand name and concentration. Should someone fall ill or be injured by one of these trade secret chemicals, a doctor would contact the company for information. (Medical organizations have complained, for starters, that doctors won’t necessarily know which company to call. Knowing the concentration of chemicals is also key. ) Doctors would be allowed to share the information with the patient and, if the patient is a minor or unconscious, the patient’s family, as well as public health officials — although the information would still be deemed confidential. A company could ask physicians to sign a nondisclosure form, although signing such a form could not be a condition of receiving the information. Health professionals, toxicologists and epidemiologists could also request information about the secret chemicals for research, but that could be conditioned on confidentiality agreements.

Vanko, Kupfer, Raley, Weiss, Mitchell, Edwards, Bunker and Jamison said they could “live with” the proposal. Bristow, Roberts and Weber dissented. “One very strong standard we can set is to start opening this up so research can be done,” said Bristow, who called the proposal “grossly inappropriate” and suggested that “trade secret” chemicals not be permitted.

THERE IS NO ‘AWAY’

What to do with the waste also split the commissioners. Maryland’s geology is unsuited for disposal in deep injection wells, and the state won’t allow sewage treatment plants to accept the toxic and radioactive waste. So, although companies would be encouraged to reuse as much as possible, eventually millions of gallons of Maryland’s fracking waste would be loaded on trucks and shipped out of state. Kenney said the state would require record-keeping on the waste hauler, volume and shipment dates.

Bristow, Roberts and Weber asked about the integrity of tanks and how long waste could be stored on site. They feared a “shell game,” with tanks of toxic and radioactive waste being moved from one temporary spot to another.

“Our shipping our crap to other states that don’t have our regulations” is a “social justice issue,” Bristow said. “Wastewater is going to be the Achilles’ heel of this industry,” she said. “For Maryland to say, ‘We don’t want it here, ship to Ohio,’ seems to me very inappropriate.”

“What will we do in 2021 when Ohio can’t take more?” Roberts asked. Scientists have linked injection wells and fracking in Ohio to earthquakes.

“There’s a problem here,” said Commissioner Weiss, the attorney. “Somebody’s going to make a lot of money off it. But we don’t have [a solution] yet.”

Voting that the practice is appropriate: Edwards, Vanko, Weiss and Kupfer. Willing to “live with” it: Raley, Bunker, Mitchell, Jamison. And dissenting: Bristow, Roberts and Weber. “It’s inappropriate to dump the problem somewhere else,” Bristow said.

FAILURE TO PROTECT

After listening to six hours of voting on these and other best practices, those who would have to live near future drilling sites were sharply critical.

“It’s frustrating that people who do not live on the shale are asked to say if they can ‘live with’ a regulation that can fail to protect those who ‘live on’ the land about to be industrialized,” said Nadine Grabania, who owns a farm and winery in Garrett County with her husband, Commissioner Roberts, and who serves on that county’s Shale Gas Advisory Committee. Calling in between customers at her Friendsville winery, she asked the state officials “to consider weighting the dissenting contributions to this consensus process because these commissioners represent actual residents who will experience the impacts that regulations are intended to mitigate. The state should place a higher value on protections than on the perception that our priority is to facilitate industrial development in rural and residential communities.”

“You ‘number 2s’ can ‘live with’ your decisions, but we will be the ones actually living with your decisions,” said Gabriel Echeverri of Frostburg, who was arrested in February in an act of civil disobedience to stop the facility in Cove Point that would liquefy and export fracked gas. “We are going to have to be living with the eventualities — not the possibilities — of degradation of water, land and air that give us sustenance in this place we call home.”

“Conservation areas get setbacks while farms do not,” said Paul Durham of the Garrett County Board of Realtors. “A limestone cave gets a setback while a field of corn does not. If you are a forest-dwelling bird, you get a setback, but if you are cattle you do not. And if you are fortunate enough to have a well or occupied building on your property, you get a setback, but if your property is unimproved the setback from compressor stations and gas infrastructure is zero feet from your property line and the setback to the well bore is cut in half.” Three studies, he said, have confirmed that proximity to drilling activity lowers property values. He questioned whether the state was trying to set a gold standard when it was ignoring best practices that would protect property values.

The day after the meeting, West Virginia Host Farms gave several commissioners a tour of fracking sites in that state. Members of the public were not permitted to go along.

–elisabeth hoffman

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Fly fishing in unfractured Garrett County.//photo by Crede Calhoun

Sacrifice zone.

The words shot out into the room like a fracked well flaring, leaving onlookers startled and wary but signifying not much out of the ordinary to the drillers.

A compensation fund “is important if we want [fracking] to move ahead … allowing people to have a level of comfort if they find themselves in a sacrifice zone,” said Shawn Bender, member of the state’s Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Advisory Commission and Garrett County Farm Bureau president. For those who are “scared to death” and hearing “horror stories,” such a fund might assuage fears sufficiently to raise support for fracking in the county, Bender said at the commission’s November meeting. Bender is also a division manager of Beitzel Corp., which operates heavy equipment and prepares sites for fracking in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Earlier during the meeting, Bender and Commissioner William Valentine had offered some benefits from fracking and pipelines: People get more access to the forest. The access roads to the old, conventional gas wells in Accident created open areas for hunters, hikers and bikers, they said. “Lots of animals are drawn to the grass around the wells,” Bender said, and once the fracking is completed, “it opens things back up. We would love to have some nice wells to have nice access.”

Paul Roberts, the citizen representative on the commission, asked incredulously: “So, more wells, more turkey, more deer, more money?”

And never mind that forests serve a purpose beyond providing a backdrop for hunters and hikers. Or that clean rivers hold more than a good fishing spot. Or that clear air is more than a grand view. Or that this extreme energy extraction requires extraordinary measures to compensate those who fall along the way. The fossil fuel industry has made its billions on a bull-in-the-china-shop romp over this Earth, trampling ecosystems and leaving sacrificed communities in its path. In fact, we now know that just 90 companies (with Chevron topping the list) caused two-thirds of the world’s industrial CO2 and methane emissions that have us in this climate-change fix. So the entire planet, turns out, is a giant sacrifice zone. (One legal scholar even says: “A clear formula now exists for allocating at least a significant percentage of the costs of climate change to those companies that benefited most … .”)

fracking rig by mike bagdes-canning

A fracking operation in Butler County, PA.
//photo by Mike Bagdes-Canning

Brigid Kenney, senior policy adviser at the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), broached discussion of a compensation fund at the meeting, asking commissioners for guidance on how the community as well as individuals could be compensated for the “disadvantages” or “burdens” of fracking. In a 2011 report from MDE and the Department of Natural Resources, the commission had endorsed several mechanisms, including a severance tax, to compensate individuals who sustained a loss that didn’t qualify as a legal claim, Kenney said. But the severance tax didn’t pass in the last General Assembly session, and commissioners had, in the meantime, signaled they wanted to direct such a pool of money for environmental damage that couldn’t be traced to a particular company.

A compensation fund might cover someone who claims harm from drilling on nearby property, such as the “noise kept me awake,” Kenney said. These would be harms that didn’t “rise to the level of a lawsuit,” she said. “I’m not sure you want to take Chevron into small claims court.” Several comments submitted on the best management practices suggested such a fund, along the lines of the fund created after the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico or the fund after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when people waived their rights to sue the airlines, she said.

But where would the money come from, Kenney asked, and who would distribute it?

“I think this is a really important conversation to have,” Roberts said. But he asked to table the topic until the next meeting, because he had had no warning and wasn’t prepared with ideas. Roberts has said that the state’s proposal to cluster fracking wells under Comprehensive Gas Development Plans (CGDPs) to try to reduce the land affected has paradoxically increased concern about sacrifice zones. In his recently released comments about the state’s proposed best management practices, he called the CGDPs “an experimental strategy” for an “experimental technology.” Citing an Environmental Protection Agency admission that fracking creates pathways for gas to migrate to the shallow aquifers, he said, “If water resources in the immediate vicinity of these industrial parks are contaminated — highly likely, due to the intensive volume of activity, and given that communication between horizontal ‘legs’ at fractured wells has been documented — we must logically assume that such contamination would not respect planned borders, creating ‘sacrifice zones,’ ” Roberts wrote. A key part of making this risk acceptable, he also said, would be a fund to adequately “compensate innocent bystanders.”

“My initial reaction is it is not a workable idea,” said Commissioner Jeff Kupfer of Chevron. “If people have legitimate legal claims, there is a process to deal with it.” Being inconvenienced, though, is another matter. If a developer closes a road for a year to build an apartment complex, “am I going to the developer to claim an inconvenience? There are certain things people should be compensated for … but the idea that people [who] are bothered should be compensated” is not workable, he said.

Several commissioners noted the expense and near impossibility of challenging a multinational corporation in court, what Pennsylvania attorney and Commissioner Harry Weiss labeled “a resource imbalance.”

“I had to wait five minutes and was late to the dentist,” Oakland Mayor Peggy Jamison said. “What should I get? … I don’t know how you would ever do that. It may be worth $100 to you but $1,000 to me.” How would that compensation be determined, she asked.

“I don’t think people are concerned about being inconvenienced,” said Roberts, who grows grapes and owns a winery and has grave concerns about damage to his business from fracking. “You are not facing the prospect of losing the value of your property.” He suggested that those who favor fracking ought to endorse such a fund. Without it, fracking “won’t have broad public support because [there is] no confidence in it.”

“I think this [compensation fund] would be totally unworkable,” said Valentine, who is also an Allegany County commissioner. People would take advantage of the fund, he said, whether they had a blocked view or were stuck behind a truck. “If someone is injured in some way, there is a legal method,” he said.

People who haven’t leased their land are more likely “to be injured and have a tough time,” said Weiss, the attorney. Nevertheless he cautioned the commission about “ad hoc” solutions when “there are still protections on the table to fill gaps that we haven’t fully fleshed out.” Later, however, he noted that Alaskan residents get an annual check for oil drilled in their state: “You could have a sacrifice zone fee for every permit,” shared by everyone in the area, rather than try to make judgments on each “level of frustration.”

“What I hear all of us confirming … is that there are going to be claims as a result of this activity …  which all of the other programs that we are trying to set up don’t address, “ Roberts said.

Kenney mentioned declines in property values. “There is currently no mechanism” she said, to compensate owners if, for example, a crematorium is built next door. But, she asked, “Are we going to single out one industry and make them pay for diminution of property value if what they are doing is legal and they aren’t causing pollution?”

“We’re not worrying about a runaway development of crematoriums,” Roberts said. “We’re talking about [gas wells]. Your analogy doesn’t stand up.”

During the time allotted for public comment, landowner Ruth Yoder of Grantsville told the commissioners: “I’m scared. …This is not going to be a level playing field if something happens to my property. I love where I live. … I hope and pray my view shed and water aren’t harmed. I’m scared.”

A brief silence ensued, followed by a bit of barely audible joking from Commissioner and state Sen. George Edwards about the county’s best fishing holes and other small talk. No one responded to Yoder.

Earlier in the meeting, Commissioner Nick Weber had said he disclosed some key fishing holes for mapping to be incorporated in the state’s proposed “tool box” for drillers. The idea is to keep drill sites from recreational sites. But Weber, a former chairman of Mid-Atlantic Trout Unlimited, also emphasized that the number of people fishing along a stream is not the only measure of its value. A stream is a resource beyond “how many cars drive up and is there a parking lot,” he said.

Roberts is holding two meetings next week with residents in Garrett County about a compensation fund. “It is paramount that county residents, as innocent bystanders to the industrialization that gas-drilling causes, not be pitted in court against the most powerful corporations in the world,” Roberts said in an announcement on CitizenShale. “This [compensation] program would level the playing field. Though I question whether this industry can ever be effectively regulated, those who want drilling should recognize a common interest we all share: People I’ve talked to who fear or oppose drilling would tolerate some, if it is controlled and properly regulated — and that’s also what proponents say they want.”

Risky business: Because the state has been unwilling to pay for an independent risk assessment of fracking, CitizenShale, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Garrett County’s largest municipality, Mountain Lake Park, are paying for a study. “Nick Weber and Paul Roberts, for over a year, have asked for a risk assessment through this process,” said Eric Robinson of CitizenShale at the commission meeting. The state decided instead to do its own study, so the organizations hired Ricardo/AEA, the British firm that conducted a risk analysis in 2012 for fracking for the European Union. “It is imperative that our state’s decisions about whether to allow gas-drilling be examined by experts qualified to make impartial determinations about the risks,” Robison said in a press release about Mountain Lake Park’s assistance. “A study like this, before such an important decision, ought to have been automatic.”

–elisabeth hoffman

garrett county

Winter in unfracked Garrett County.

I’m going out on a limb here: A scenic byway with a drill pad for fracking natural gas 300 feet away will no longer be scenic. A scenic or wild river 300 feet from that drill pad will no longer be scenic or provide a sense of wilderness.

And yet, those are some of the setbacks for drilling rigs listed in the state’s draft of Best Management Practices (BMPs) for fracking in Garrett and Allegany counties in Western Maryland.

The 15-member Marcellus Shale Initiative Advisory Commission got its last chance last week to look over the document being prepared by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of the Environment (MDE).  Before releasing the BMPs to the public, the state departments are making final adjustments based on that discussion. Individual commissioners can also provide comments for a planned appendix. The BMPs will in turn be incorporated into regulations for drilling permits if Maryland opens the door to fracking.

Commissioner and Delegate Heather Mizeur, for starters, questioned why a drilling rig can be closer to a private well than to a public water supply. The draft plan says borewells must be 2,000 feet from a public groundwater well or surface water intake but can be 1,000 feet from a private well.  “It seems we should care as much about private wells as public,” Mizeur said. “If a private well is damaged, the homeowner is out the entire value of the property.”

Commissioner Jeffrey Kupfer, a senior adviser with Chevron Government Affairs, said imposing a 2,000-foot setback from all wells would make locating a spot for drilling all the more difficult. He said “lots of alternatives” exist for replacing a private water supply. (I can think of only two: huge “water buffalo” replacement tanks, a term I had never encountered before reading about families in Pennsylvania who had lost use of their water; and hooking up a household to the public water supply. That’s also done in Pennsylvania, leaving families with a monthly water bill and a feeling of contamination they never had before.) Although he said he didn’t want to discuss all the setbacks, Kupfer said, “I do think a number of these are excessive, based on actual scientific evidence.”

Drs. Keith N. Eshleman and Andrew J. Elmore of the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory had a different assessment of setbacks. In their recommended BMPs that are the basis for the state’s draft, they write: “How much protection (if any) these setbacks can provide can clearly be debated; many setbacks do not seem to be based on solid scientific reasoning or empirical data. Nevertheless, both industry and the state benefit when setbacks are clearly stated in statutes or regulations.”

Eight incorporated municipalities in Garrett County have public water systems from surface water and groundwater, while the remaining properties in the county have private wells. Private wells are concentrated most heavily around McHenry, Grantsville and Oakland, according to the DNR.  In all, 14,264 private wells are in the county, including 8,250 wells on top of land that at one point was leased for Marcellus Shale. (Not all of the leases remain in effect.)

Mizeur insisted that the loss of a private well to one family is a “gigantic disruption. They don’t have water to bathe in or drink.” And their property is worthless, Commissioner Paul Roberts said. He again argued for the 2,000-foot setback — a buffer federal regulators granted to Dominion Transmission Inc. when it sought to protect its Sabinsville Storage Pool in Pennsylvania from nearby fracking.  He says the state has no justification for the 1,000-foot setback and shouldn’t be in a position of “disregard[ing] evidence offered by the industry itself about the risks of drilling too close to resources that demand protection.”

Kupfer insisted there “clearly is a difference” between a private well and a source for public water. The setbacks are based on a risk-benefit calculation, and “That’s just reality,” he said.

Roberts, a farmer and winery owner, wanted to include in the regulations a cap on levels of disturbance to the land. The draft BMPs include a 2 percent cap only in high-value watersheds. “If there is not a limit set on the total amount of development, [the BMPs are] only asserting a methodical pace to industrialization,” he said. “If we don’t set limits on the industrialization, the county will cease to be rural.”

Commissioner Nick Weber of Trout Unlimited said even the 2 percent disturbance would be “devastating” near trout streams.

The Eshleman report says strong BMPs can limit land disturbance to “less than 1 – 2 percent.” It recommends minimizing the number and density of well pads, because the “infrastructure will likely be in place for at least a 30-year period before final reclamation.”

“I hope someone is doing the math,” Roberts said a few days after the meeting. A 2-percent cap “would be an outrageously high rate of development in a high-value watershed.”

Kupfer questioned a sentence in the draft that calls for initial drilling areas to be “removed from sensitive natural resource values.”  Christine Conn of DNR said the idea is to drill in “less sensitive areas” first to reduce “unintended impacts.”

Weber, though, said “I don’t know what is less needed for less-sensitive wells than for more-sensitive wells.”

Brigid Kenney of MDE said the state doesn’t intend to be “less protective” in any area, but “if we make a mistake, and something goes wrong, we will have time to correct [that] if what goes wrong is not in the most sensitive place.” 

Chairman David Vanko, for not the first time, suggested an airplane analogy: One wouldn’t fly a new plane over Manhattan, he said.  At a previous meeting, he has said the goal is to make fracking in Maryland as safe as the airline industry. Which seems overly optimistic. And beside the point, because airline travel is not compulsory, while living next to drilling will be if fracking goes forward.

Commissioner Harry Weiss, an attorney in fracked Pennsylvania, heralded the proposed Comprehensive Gas Drilling Plans (CGDP). “I don’t know whether industry will buy into this,” he said, “[but] to the extent this survives…what we are seeing is a revolution in this field…[that is] designed to give Maryland the most protective program in the nation.” He said he is “skeptical that it will fly, in that companies will squawk,” but if Maryland turns the BMPs into strong regulations, “Maryland will have the best…environmental protection program for shale gas development.”

Kupfer said he remained dissatisfied with state’s plan to require CGDPs. “I think saying one has the most protective [regulations] is not necessarily the most desirable in itself.” The state could have the most protective plan but then no gas development. “I think it’s highly unlikely that any company will go through this process,” he said. The CGDPs involve “too many moving pieces,” and the “resources involved for uncertain outcome would not be worth it.”

Last year, Garrett County closed two elementary schools rather than raise property taxes. Assessments had yielded $2 million less in revenue than the previous year, and even a last-minute $500,000 addition from the Board of Commissioners wasn’t enough.  George Edwards, who is a member of the shale advisory commission, a state senator in Garrett since 2007 and a long-time delegate, has mentioned the budget gap and the school closings as a rationale for fracking. He anticipates and welcomes what he predicts will be an economic boost from this industry. But this solution – fracking for a fossil fuel – seems unimaginative and counterproductive, as it puts those very schoolchildren in the middle of an industrial zone (borehole setback from occupied building: 1,000 feet), jeopardizing their health, their rural and majestic surroundings, and even their climate. Fracking also threatens to crack the economic bedrock of the region’s tourism economy so dependent on scenic byways and wild rivers.  If Garrett is to “save” its schools in this manner, officials should at least rename them to honor their benefactor. How’s this: Chevron Elementary. And Fracking Elementary.

–by elisabeth hoffman

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A drilling site in Worth Township, near Slippery Rock, Pa.//photo by Mike Bagdes-Canning of Marcellus Outreach Butler.

During two Mondays in April, I witnessed policymakers carefully scripting the undoing of Western Maryland.

Some would say they are determining best practices for fracking in the state, but that’s not how it looks from the audience.

The state’s 15-member Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, which Gov. Martin O’Malley appointed two years ago, is examining what regulations could be put in place to make fracking safe. Or wait, maybe regulations to reduce the risks of fracking. Or to figure out the acceptable risks of fracking. Or the unacceptable risks.

In February 2012, the commission — operating without a budget but with money found under couch cushions at the state Department of the Environment (MDE) — hired Dr. Keith Eshleman, from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory, to review methods around the country and come up with a list of best practices for fracking in the state. Eshleman and Andrew Elmore, a UMCES assistant professor, produced a 173-page report that includes 121 “best management practices.”

Over the last two Mondays in April, the commission discussed that report as well as an early outline of best practices that MDE and the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are developing based on the Eshleman report. “All [of Eshleman’s] recommendations are going to be considered,” said Brigid Kenney, senior policy adviser with MDE. The departments will accept, modify or reject the recommendations after considering practicality, feasibility, ability to implement, she said. The report will be released in May, and the public will have 30 days to comment.

But even before Eshleman could explain his report, tension surfaced. Actually, tension is a strong undercurrent at all of these meetings. One faction of this commission would have been content to start fracking a couple years ago because it trusts industry to pretty much get this right. This faction, which includes a representative of Chevron, a state senator and a Garrett County commissioner, seems to view all this talk, talk, talk as a lot of foot-dragging. The other, perhaps outnumbered faction frequently voices concern for the region’s rivers, air quality, trout, forests, water wells, soil, tourism. Think swimming, hiking, camping, kayaking, sledding. Think water for drinking and growing food, clean air for breathing, uncontaminated soil, stable climate.

At this first meeting about best management practices, commissioner Paul Roberts, who grows grapes and makes wine at Deep Creek Cellars in Garrett, wanted some clarification from Kenney: “Is the state willing to conclude we can’t do this, even if regulations are in place?” he asked. Kenney said that the decision about fracking was “independent of the regulations” and that departments would not issue permits if fracking were found to be unsafe.

Commission member Nick Weber of Trout Unlimited said he was concerned about failure rates for the wells’ cement casings — estimated in recent Cornell University studies to range, in the first year alone, from 5 to 9 percent, or 1 in 12. Those casings are the barrier between the aquifer and the toxic fluid used for drilling. They also prevent methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from escaping the well bore. Such failure rates, for “anything else in our lives, [are] very large,” he said. Weber, who was a scientist with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, also asked how the state would determine what exactly is an “unacceptable risk,” a criterion mentioned in the governor’s executive order. “I’m completely in the dark about how that goes on” at DNR and MDE, Weber said.

After a bit more discussion about whether studies on health, economics and traffic could be complete by 2014 and what this or the next governor might do, commission member  Sen. George Edwards said, “My understanding is that the purpose of this commission is to come up with the golden rule for drilling.” The commission should not be concerned about whether this or the next governor wants drilling, he said. “We need to keep on track what this commission is supposed to do.” He said technology constantly evolves, so the commission needs to come up with the best available practices and update them over time. After that, monitoring is key. “And if something happens, you can cut it off quick enough to prevent a bunch of impacts,” he said.

Commission Chairman David Vanko, a Towson University dean and professor of geology, said he had read about Ohio truckers dumping fracking waste: “It’s those bald-faced breaking of the rules we want to deal with.”

Commission member Harry Weiss, a Pennsylvania attorney, said “there’s never enough money for enforcement.”

The questions about what the commission is supposed to do and what constitutes “unacceptable risks” were not addressed further.

For the record, the governor’s executive order creating the commission charged it with figuring out “WHETHER [my bold, italics, capitalization] and how gas production from the Marcellus shale in Maryland can be accomplished without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources.” Whether the state will drill is a question only the outnumbered faction consistently raises.

A number of environmental and health organizations, including Food & Water Watch and Environment Maryland, wrote O’Malley last week to raise alarms about the direction the commission seems to be headed: “We suggest a different approach: that you provide clear direction for the Advisory Commission and lead the way to a future where fracking is never allowed in our state, so there are no harms to mitigate in the first place.” Chesapeake Climate Action Network is circulating an on-line petition, urging the governor to assess the risks of fracking before writing the regulations.

Also last week, MDE Secretary Robert M. Summers posted a letter to the public on the commission website in response to “many emails” from people who have been told that the commission assumes that fracking is inevitable. “This is not true,” he wrote. “No decision has been made about whether hydraulic fracturing should be allowed in Maryland, and MDE is proceeding methodically and cautiously to develop stringent regulations that will protect Marylanders in the event hydraulic fracturing is allowed.”

At his presentation, Eshleman emphasized that he would not recommend whether drilling should go forward. Nor did his report deal with climate forcing, public health or economics, which are supposed to be covered in future reports. (The governor included $1.5 million in the budget to cover these studies and monitoring of water in Western Maryland). His task, he said, was only to suggest best management practices. But Eshleman’s report includes several warnings about fracking in Maryland. For example, it notes that “the lack of comprehensive, data-driven studies of the impacts of [fracking]  … present a significant impediment to recommending best practices on the basis of this criterion alone.”

The report also says:

“We believe that it is inevitable that there will be negative impacts from [fracking] in western Maryland (and perhaps beyond the state’s borders) and that a significant portion of these ‘costs’ will be borne by local communities. Heavy truck traffic on local roads, noise and odors emanating from drilling sites, conflicts with outdoor recreation, diminished tourism, reduced biodiversity, and deterioration of air and water quality are some examples of the types of impacts that are likely even under the best of circumstances. While difficult to quantify in economic terms, these ‘costs’ will ideally be greatly outweighed by the benefits of increased economic activity—otherwise it is very difficult to make a case that [fracking] should occur at all.” [again, my bold, italic] 

The report recommends, among other practices, drilling in dense clusters, so as to minimize land disruption. This would require “forced pooling,” which the state doesn’t have the power to enforce. Under forced pooling, gas companies could force landowners into leasing gas rights in certain areas so as to contain harm. The report recommends two years of pre-drilling monitoring at each site to determine water quality and map such things as rare and endangered species. It recommends a slow ramping up of drilling “to allow a new regulatory structure and experience in inspection and enforcement to evolve over time.” It also proposes a voluntary comprehensive drilling plan, or CDP, for each site, to encourage “channeling this industrial activity into those areas where fewer of the most sensitive resources are ‘in harm’s way’  and where new infrastructure needs (e.g., roads, pipelines) are lower.” Drillers should not drill near abandoned wells, mapped voids, steep slopes, wetlands, floodplains, conservation areas. The report also includes recommended setbacks (such as 300 feet from the edge of the disturbed area to streams, rivers, wetlands, trails, parks, scenic byways…; 1,000 feet from the borehole to an occupied building). For reference, a football field is 360 feet.

The report also recommended ongoing reclamation. In Pennsylvania, “I saw no evidence of any reclamation going on at all,” Eshleman said. And yet: “I don’t want anyone to think there will be rapid return of the land to something that it looked like prior to any drilling,” he said. The marketing for drilling, he said, is that the company fracks and then restores the land to what it was, but that is misleading. “We saw an industrialization over an existing rural [community],” he said, “and it might be there for 20 or 30 or 40 years” so the company can refrack the wells for the Marcellus or Utica shales.

Feeling reassured yet?

The state agencies’ plan for regulations is still in the form of a preliminary outline — which was displayed but not released to anyone in the audience. But one proposed regulation would require companies to submit a Comprehensive Gas Drilling Plan (CGDP) that would include compressor stations, roads, pipelines, wastewater treatment. Drillers would have to work with a “stakeholder’s group” of local government, park managers, NGOs and property owners, and hold a public meeting about each drilling plan. The state plan also would allow only freshwater ponds, rather than ponds of frack wastewater, and require closed-loop systems (recycling of flowback water as much as possible) and disclosure of chemicals. Companies claiming trade secrets would still have to give information about chemicals to MDE.

Several commissioners asked for a side-by-side comparison of the state’s proposed regulations and the Eshleman report. Otherwise, they said, the commission couldn’t readily determine what was different. “Eshleman should be a baseline for the gold standard,” commission member and state Delegate Heather Mizeur said. Kenney said that would probably be difficult given the organization of the Eshleman report.

Commissioner Roberts questioned any setback less than 2,000 feet – a distance the industry in one instance insisted on to protect its infrastructure. Last year, Dominion Transmission Inc. (DTI) sought and received federal approval for a 2,000-foot buffer around its vast Sabinsville Storage Pool for natural gas in Pennsylvania — to protect it from nearby fracking.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agreed after DTI said the 2,000 foot buffer was “needed to ensure the facility’s continued safe and reliable operation amidst nearby natural gas horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing activity targeting the Marcellus Shale [my bold] and other possible encroachment activities by third parties.” DTI said it was concerned that fractures could create migration paths for the gas to move out of the storage pool. And FERC concurred, finding that “there has been no model developed that has been used to predict the exact placement and path, width, length and height of a fracture and then to prove, with actual microseismic events, that the fractures were placed where predicted and extended only to the predicted length, width, and height, and no farther.”

In other words, they don’t really know the consequences under the earth of fracking.

“I’m just asking for the same protections for everyone that the industry says it needs for itself,” Roberts said.

He also urged the state to consider that fracking would bring with it more gas lines and compressor stations, which are governed by FERC, rather than the state.

Commission member John Fritts, president of the Savage River Watershed Association and director of development for the Federation of American Scientists, asked about environmental damage: “How is the state going to be compensated for this damage? … Are we giving industry a free pass on this?”

Commissioner Jeffrey Kupfer of Chevron could be relied on to react to nearly every proposed regulation with concern for the “real world.” Mind you, that is the oil and gas industry’s real world. His “real world” has nothing to do with the world of brook trout, unbroken forests, endangered bats and goshawks, grapes growing and children breathing. Various regulations were “very complicated” and “very difficult.” He said “reality on the ground becomes a different story” and asked “is this feasible” and “ is it realistic and in the real world?” Likewise, he said, operating without some waivers from setbacks is “not practical.”

Also rattling around the room were occasional references to the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a Pennsylvania coalition that includes the Heinz Endowments, a few of the large drillers (such as Chevron and Shell) and a few large environmental organizations (including the Environmental Defense Fund). It has devised a list of 15 voluntary performance standards. But half of the top 10 drillers in Pennsylvania didn’t sign on, and many environmental organizations rejected the premise: that drilling could be done safely, with or without voluntary practices. In addition, one can certainly take issue with the use of the term “sustainable” when describing a fossil fuel.

During a public comment time at the first meeting, Crede Calhoun criticized a “flaw in the process” that “seems to be putting the cart before horse.” Why, he asked, spend all this money and time developing regulations before determining whether fracking is in the best interests of the residents and existing tourist businesses? People who invest in second homes come to Garrett for the long-term. Fracking, though, is the “large-scale imposition of industry on the rural and peaceful landscape.”

Calhoun operates an ecotourism business catering to people who, he said, want to escape urbanization and industrialization. After the meeting, he said that fracking and the tourism industry are incompatible: “All the marketing says ‘Escape to Garrett County.’ What are they going to change it to? ‘Escape to Gasland’?”

–by elisabeth hoffman