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A new government assessment has identified several areas throughout Southern Maryland that have the potential for hydraulic fracturing to mine natural gas.

The practice, known as fracking, has been under way for years in parts of Pennsylvania known as the Marcellus Shale, which also extends into some of Western Maryland. Mining companies drill wells into the shale and inject them with sand and water containing chemicals to essentially crack the rock and release recoverable natural gas or oil.

“We try to emphasize there is a range of possibilities,” Jim Coleman, research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, said of the June report’s findings.

Using existing wells and test wells, the USGS developed estimates of the amount of gas in five Mesozoic basins along the East Coast. The agency identified nine other basins that likely have supplies of gas, but did not assess the quanity because of lack of data.

The Taylorsville basin runs through some of Virginia and across the Potomac River to cover much of Charles County, some of Prince George’s and up to Annapolis. That basin was assessed and found to contain an estimated 1,064 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

Some of the Delmarva basin covers parts of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, extends across the Chesapeake Bay and into much of St. Mary’s and Calvert counties. While that basin was not assessed, Coleman said, it does likely contain some amount of natural gas.

Nearly all of Southern Maryland is contained within the Taylorsville and Delmarva basins.

“It doesn’t say it’s going to happen, but it says it could happen,” Mitch Jones, common resources program director of Food and Water Watch, said of fracking in Southern Maryland. “We don’t really know the full scale of what we could be looking at” based on the unassessed basins, he said.

There is no law banning the process of hydraulic fracturing in Maryland; the state has convened a commission to study the process.

However, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has a standing executive order not to issue any permits for fracking.

That order could be lifted at any time, Jones said, which would potentially open up the state to fracking.

“We are calling for a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing,” Jones said. He said the group is supporting a bill that Del. Shane Robinson (D-Montgomery) plans to introduce in the 2013 legislature session.

Jones cited a variety of environmental problems and public health issues that he said are linked to fracking in other areas, including contamination of drinking and surface water by the chemicals used in the process, migration of the methane gas itself into drinking water and the dilemma of how to dispose of the used fracking solution.

Coleman said that the gas predicted in the five newly assessed basins along the East Coast have an estimated 3.9 trillion cubic feet of gas, an amount that pales in comparison to that of the Marcellus Shale, which has an estimated 84 trillion cubic feet of gas. However, he said, that does not rule out the oil and gas industry’s potential to extract the resource in Maryland. “Most of industry already knows about these areas,” he said.

The USGS report does not look at the legality or economic issues of drilling, Coleman said, only whether the resources exist or not. The East Coast estimates are part of a nationwide project over the last decade to assess domestic petroleum basins.

“Americans are currently benefitting from a plentiful supply of natural gas from continuous resource accumulations similar to the ones considered in this assessment,” Marcia McNutt, USGS director, said in a statement. “By providing estimates of undiscovered resources, the USGS helps both producers and consumers understand the future for our domestic supply and the geographic locations for impacts from energy development.”

jyeatman@somdnews.com