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A poll released Monday shows strong support for the state to require studies before allowing any hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas in Western Maryland.

According to the poll, which was commissioned by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and conducted by OpinionWorks of Annapolis, 78 percent of Marylanders want to see such studies conducted prior to approval for fracking, which involves pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to release natural gas trapped in rock formations.

Fracking already is taking place in neighboring Pennsylvania’s and West Virginia’s sections of the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that runs under the Appalachian Mountains from New York to North Carolina, and is estimated to hold the nation’s largest reserve of natural gas.

The poll asked 800 registered voters in Maryland, from Dec. 28 to Jan. 2, whether they believe studies should be conducted, after telling respondents that fracking is a new method of extracting natural gas that “has led to land rights disputes and serious pollution concerns.” The margin of error on the poll is 3.5 percent.

“Who likes big oil companies?” said Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council. “Not many people do. I think [the pollsters] were trying to get a response based on that.”

A bill to put a moratorium into law until studies are conducted was scheduled for a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Health, Education, and Environmental Affairs Committee, where similar bills have died in the past, said Mike Tidwell, president of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

This year, according to Sen. Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick), a co-sponsor of the bill and a member of the committee, the legislation has the requisite six votes on the committee.

“In the past, one of the problems has been money,” said Young, adding that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) included $1.5 million in his proposed fiscal 2014 budget to conduct studies. “That should take away that concern.”

But the $1.5 million won’t be enough to conduct studies on all 18 points outlined in a 2011 executive order by O’Malley, which effectively halted the issuance of drilling permits, said Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), sponsor of the bill in the House.

Among the items outlined for study are the risk of groundwater contamination; forest fragmentation as platforms, pipelines and roads are built to accommodate drilling; and how to dispose of vast amounts of wastewater created in the process.

“It will cost $2 [million] to $4 million to conduct all of these studies,” said Mizeur, citing conversations with state agencies.

The bill is needed to ensure that additional funds are allocated for more studies before any fracking moves forward, Mizeur said.

“That’s what the public is asking us to do, is study the effects on public health, the environment and the local economy,” she said.

Opponents of the bill say there are landowners in Garrett and Allegany counties who have leased their land for drilling, and should be able to reap the benefits of fracking. Others have said that drilling companies are losing interest in Maryland because of the delay, and are letting their leases expire and moving elsewhere.

“There’s no assurance of the process in Maryland, how expensive it’s going to be or if they even can drill,” Cobbs said of the companies moving out of the state. “No one’s going to invest in that climate.”

Cobbs said that the council opposes Mizeur’s bill, along with another calling for an outright ban on fracking.

hnunn@gazette.net