What Maryland’s Fracking Recommendations Actually Mean

Recently, the Maryland Departments of the Environment and Natural Resources released their recommendations for regulations on shale gas development in the Old Line State.

It’s important to point out that these recommendations present a firm rejection of the “ban fracking” agenda.  As the report explains, the recommendations come from an Executive Order by Governor Martin O’Malley (D) established in January 2011 to help policymakers determine the safety of hydraulic fracturing.  After studying the process for three years and looking at the science – which anti-fracking activists are constantly telling them to look at – they did not recommend a ban but rather strict regulations. If the science truly showed that development could not take place without destroying public health and the environment, there’s simply no way that these Departments would have recommended anything other than a ban. But they did not, because actual science does not support “the science” that anti-fracking groups claim to own.

All that aside, it’s certainly very encouraging to see the state take important steps towards development.  However, it’s important to ensure that these strict regulations do not run the risk of being so strict that they create an incredibly difficult – if not entirely prohibitive – operational environment.

One area where this could become a problem is the proposed setback rule.  According to the recommendations, a well cannot be located within 1,000 feet of a residence or within 2,000 feet of a private water well.  From the report:

“[A] well pad cannot be located…Within 2,000 feet of a private drinking water well; except that the well pad may be located between 1,000 and 2,000 feet of a private drinking water well if the applicant demonstrates through a hydrogeologic study that the proposed well pad is not upgradient of the private drinking water well and the owner of the private drinking water well consents.” (p. 22)

The Associated Press interviewed Brigid Kenney with the Department of the Environment, who explained,

“That’s twice the distance Maryland currently requires between gas wells and private water wells, and a bigger setback than any other state mandates, said Brigid Kenney, a senior policy adviser with the Department of the Environment.”

While a 1,000 foot setback is certainly large, a 2,000 foot setback from private water wells could make development excessively complicated if not completely impossible.

Notably, large setbacks are what anti-fracking activists call for when they know they can’t achieve an outright ban. They deceive the public into believing they merely stand for “tough rules,” and want to keep a “safe distance” between development and water wells, homes, and businesses. In reality, these types of rules make development incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

Take, for instance, what happened in Dallas, where the City Council passed new “rules” that included a 1,500 foot setback from private residences.  To put that distance in context, the setback requirement in Fort Worth, Texas — where the Barnett Shale has been developed safely for years, and where more than 1,600 wells have been drilled — is 600 feet.  As EID pointed out when Dallas adopted its new rules, 1,500 feet is essentially a buffer zone equivalent to the area of Dallas Cowboys Stadium and its surrounding parking lot. Anti-fracking groups celebrated the new setback in Dallas as a “de facto ban” on fracking.

In Colorado, avid anti-fracking Colorado Congressman Jared Polis is calling for a 2,000 foot setback requirement from residences – which would have the effect of shutting down development.

If you combine the 2,000 foot setback rule from water wells with some of the other proposed rules, things get even more complicated.  The report also recommends, “There can be no drilling pad on land with a slope greater than 15 percent.” Given that a slope greater than 15 percent is not an unusual occurrence, its likely a great deal of land will be unavailable for development.  Further, producers would also be required to present a comprehensive plan. From the report:

“The Departments agree that a comprehensive plan offers great advantages, but we recommend that the program be mandatory rather than voluntary. In the Draft Report, we proposed that Maryland require, as a prerequisite to the issuance of any permit to drill a gas exploration, extension, or production well, that the prospective applicant first submit a Comprehensive Gas Development Plan (CGDP). Commenters noted that basic information that can only be obtained by an exploratory well would be necessary before a company could write a CGDP. If a company were required to prepare a CGDP before drilling exploratory wells, there would be a high likelihood that the information obtained from exploratory wells would necessitate a substantively different CGDP.” (p. 10)

A comprehensive plan on the scale of what is being proposed will likely take up to three years for producers to complete.  A land lease is only good for five years, so if it takes around three years just to obtain the permit, that makes the time frame for the actual development quite tight, not to mention much more expensive.

In light of these recommendations, it’s important to point out that other states, which also have rigorous rules, are able to complete the permitting process within a year rather than the course of several years – and at less expense. If Maryland’s rules remain so much stricter than other states (and unnecessarily so), it may have a detrimental effect on the state’s ability to attract business.

Maryland is nonetheless moving in the right direction by working to craft new rules, and thus rejecting the hysteria from “ban fracking” groups. However, it should also take care that the rules are actually workable so residents can reap the many benefits of shale development in their state.  A study by researchers at Towson University found that shale development would bring thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the state, and two counties – Allegany and Garrett – would particularly benefit.  Allegany County could see 952 new jobs and $1.7 million in new tax revenues, while Garrett County could add 2,743 jobs and increase tax revenues by $4.4 million.

Time will tell whether these recommendations become official state law, and industry technologies are constantly evolving to reduce impacts. But without question, it would be a shame if impossible regulations got in the way of new growth and prosperity for residents in Maryland, where the unemployment rate is more than double what it is in North Dakota.

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