Josh Kurtz: Frack This!

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Could an underground rock formation in Western Maryland set off the country’s next great energy boom – and save the dying local economy and ease the state’s fiscal woes in the bargain?

Maybe.

But – to steal from the Academy Award-winning blockbuster about an oil speculator – there will be blood. And an alphabet soup of federal, state and regional agencies will have to weigh in before anything substantial can happen. Innumerable political fights are already under way.

According to a recent University of Maryland study, between $6 billion and $49 billion worth of natural gas reserves exist in Garrett and Allegany counties, just waiting to be tapped. There’s gold in them thar hills – fast-moving, invisible gold – and already prospectors and local governments have dollar signs dancing in their heads, fueling a 21st Century version of the Wild West.

Western Maryland is part of an enormous underground rock formation called the Marcellus Shale, which takes in parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and a tiny sliver of New Jersey. By all accounts, there’s an unbelievable amount of natural gas down there – enough to help ease the country’s energy crisis if it’s drilled and brought to the surface.

But that’s where the trouble lies – literally and figuratively. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources estimates that in Allegany and Garrett counties, the Marcellus Shale is 5,000-10,000 feet deep, and anywhere from 150 to 250 feet thick. That’s a lot of rock to bust through to get to the gas reserves.

But thanks to American ingenuity – and our ever-growing thirst for more sources of energy – there is a way. The technique is called hydraulic fracturing – or fracking, as it is more commonly known.

If it sounds dirty, that’s only because it is. Drills bore into the earth, pipes are laid underground – similar to conventional oil and gas drilling. But to extract the gas from the ground in a deep shale formation, a high-pressure cocktail of water, sand and chemicals is injected into the rock.

Environmentalists’ No. 1 argument against fracking is that the chemicals being shot into the ground can contaminate drinking water. They also point out that the diesel rigs needed to set up drilling operations belch pollution into the atmosphere morning, noon and night, and that the drilling sites permanently scar beautiful rural areas.

But advocates of drilling in the Marcellus Shale dispute the notion that fracking pollutes the water supply, pointing out that the shale is too far beneath the surface to affect most water sources. As for the other arguments against it, well, they say, that’s the cost of doing business, of expanding and diversifying America’s energy portfolio (after all, no one considers oil and coal exploration clean).

In the fight for the hearts and minds of the public, it’s hard for proponents to compete against what seems like a steady drumbeat of bad news about fracking. Earlier this spring, fracking fluid from a Pennsylvania drilling site spilled into a tributary of the Susquehanna River, prompting Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) to signal his intention to sue the drilling company for potential damage to the Chesapeake Bay, 200 miles downstream.

Just last week, a British drilling company suspended its fracking activities after a series of mild earthquakes hit Lancashire, England – amid government fears that the drilling operations had triggered the quakes. Most famously, the documentary “Gasland,” which was nominated for an Oscar this year, showed residents of a Colorado shale-gas town setting fire to their drinking water.

State and local governments have reacted to fracking in different ways. New York State last year imposed a moratorium on fracking. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have banned it. But outside those two cities, fracking is now big business in Pennsylvania, where geologists say the natural gas is most abundant. (An Audubon Society official recently charged that forests and forest species near drilling sites in Pennsylvania have deteriorated noticeably in the five years since fracking has become widespread there.)

In Maryland there appears to be a de facto moratorium on fracking, as the state has not issued a drilling permit since 2009. But legislation to impose a two-year moratorium stalled in the state Senate this year after passing in the House (moratorium advocates see the work of Sean Malone of Harris Jones & Malone, the politically-wired lobbying firm whose clients include Chief Oil and Gas, a Harrisburg, Pa., company actively developing drilling sites in the region, as at least partially responsible for the bill’s demise). At the same time, a measure from Garrett County state Sen. George Edwards (R) demanding that the state develop fracking regulations by the end of the year also went nowhere.

On Monday, Governor Martin O’Malley jumped into the issue, signing an order to create what he has called the “Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative” – requiring a series of studies, with the first one due by the end of 2011 and the final one to be issued by August 2014.

Right now, fracking fans and foes are looking to the federal government for guidance. Environmentalists are all but begging the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal regulators to impose severe limitations on fracking operations. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D), who makes Gansler seem like a shrinking violent, last month sued the feds for swift action on fracking.

Republican members of Congress are browbeating Obama administration officials whenever they come to testify on energy and environmental matters, urging them not to get in the way of the next great drilling boom. Legislation paving the way for more fracking is already in the hopper.

But the federal bureaucracy moves slowly, and it doesn’t help that President Obama, stung by charges that he isn’t doing enough to combat high gasoline prices, doesn’t want to be seen as anti-industry.

An illustration of just how politically divisive the issue is was on vivid display last week as a new U.S. Department of Energy task force on gas drilling safety held its first two hearings in Washington. Even before the meetings convened, GOP congressmen and industry leaders complained loudly that the make-up of the task force was stacked against drilling. And just as the first meeting began, environmentalists angrily confronted the panel chairman, former Clinton administration CIA Director John Deutch, demanding that he resign or divest himself of his substantial energy holdings.

The panel is supposed to develop recommendations in 90 days on ways to make drilling in general, and fracking in particular, safer, and it’s supposed to offer advice to other agencies on how to better protect the environment during shale gas drilling.

Meantime, candidates and officeholders on both ends of the political spectrum are scoring political points for their words and deeds on fracking.

In Texas last week – site of the gas-rich Barrett Shale – state Railroad Commission Chairman Elizabeth Ames Jones (R), a leading energy regulator, urged the feds to stay out of the fracking rulemaking game, and announced that Texas wouldn’t require companies to disclose what chemicals they put in fracking fluid if doing so would violate trade secrets. Jones, it should be noted, is a candidate for U.S. Senate, and her statements are sure to curry favor with the oil and gas industry.

Back at home, Gansler seems determined to become the environmentalists’ choice for governor in 2014, so his intention to sue the Pennsylvania driller sends a strong signal to Maryland greens. Interestingly, state Del. Heather Mizeur (D), the sponsor of the unsuccessful bill to impose a two-year fracking moratorium, will be the keynote speaker at the Garrett County Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson dinner later this month. That’s a long way from her Takoma Park home.

And so now fracking joins the ranks of oil, nuclear, offshore wind, solar and just about anything else that can be used to power America -- lots of untapped energy, money to be made, and political posturing from all sides of the issue.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

The Undercard

Talking Union Blues

The Peter Principle

Mapmaker, Mapmaker Make Me a Map

Two More Giants Exit the Maryland Scene

Six Degrees of William Donald Schaefer

The Lion in Winter

O’Malley’s (Coast to Coast) March

This Time It's Personal

Seinfeld in Maryland

The First 107 Days

Team of Rivals?

Rob Garagiola’s Political Highway

Blame the Teachers!

The Nine Lives of the ICC

The Incredible Shrinking City

Paying the Fare
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.