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Environmental groups highlight possible effects of process if permitted


Staff writer

Amid the discussions about Dominion Cove Point’s proposed liquefied natural gas exportation project, there has been concern that the project would lead to hydraulic fracturing in the state. Environmental groups recently commissioned a study discussing the possible effects of “fracking” should the process be permitted in Maryland.

On Feb. 12, a United Kingdom-based energy and environmental consulting company released the study “Report: Shale Gas Assessment for Maryland,” commissioned by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Citizen Shale. The study focuses on the effects of hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus Shale in Maryland, specifically Garrett and Allegany counties in Western Maryland.

RICARDO-AEA is a provider of analysis, advice and data on economically sustainable solutions for global energy and environmental challenges, according to its website. The company built this assessment on a risk assessment the company helped conduct for the development of unconventional hydrocarbons in Europe, according to the report.

Chesapeake Climate Action Network is a nonprofit group in the Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., area fighting global warming. The group has been very outspoken in opposition of Dominion’s project, claiming it will put pressure on the state to permit fracking.

Citizen Shale, formed by a group of concerned citizens, landowners and business people from Western Maryland, is dedicated to protecting individuals and communities from the wide-ranging impacts of shale gas development through research, policy review and education, according to the organization’s website.

In 2011, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) issued an executive order establishing the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative to assist policymakers and regulators in determining whether 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. Under the initiative, an advisory committee was formed to conduct a study of extraction of natural gas from shale formations in the state including short- and long-term and cumulative effects, best practices and any changes to laws and regulations regarding oil and gas.

The initiative is not a moratorium on drilling in the Marcellus Shale and does not restrict the Maryland Department of the Environment from issuing permits under existing law and regulation, according to a state fact sheet.

In December 2011, MDE and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in consultation with the advisory commission presented its findings and recommendations regarding the desirability of legislation to establish revenue sources. By this spring, the departments and the commission anticipate issuing a final report for best practices for all aspects of natural gas exploration and production in the shale in Maryland.

Although the executive order doesn’t explicitly call for a risk assessment, MDE and DNR are preparing one and expect it to be completed in June, MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said.

“We expect the studies to complement each other,” Apperson said of the state’s anticipated study and this recently released study.

Dominion has proposed and applied for the ability to export liquefied natural gas from its terminal in Lusby off Cove Point Road. The project currently is under review by federal and state agencies.

“As a strategic risk assessment, this study does not take account of site-specific controls which may be applied at individual developments,” the report states. “Its value is therefore in identifying the key environmental risk issues which state policy-makers should take into account when taking a decision with regard to the potential development of shale gas resources in the state.”

The report explains that “to ensure the most efficient delivery of this project,” the European Commission study was used as the starting point for the analysis. The risks associated with development of shale gas resources in Maryland were evaluated on the basis of existing legislative and regulatory provisions, the report states, noting that it did not take into account the potential benefits of the Best Practice Measures the Maryland Department of the Environment has issued in a report.

The report examines 10 environmental aspects — groundwater contamination; surface water contamination; water resources; release to air; land take; risk to biodiversity; noise impact; visual impact; seismicity; and traffic — across seven project phases, including site identification and preparation; well design, drilling, casing and cementing; fracturing; well completion; production; and well abandonment and post-abandonment.

Land take during site preparation associated with shale development received an overall “very high” risk rating across all project phases. In addition, eight of the 10 environmental aspects — groundwater contamination, surface water contamination, water resources, release to air, risk to biodiversity, noise impacts, visual impact and traffic — received overall “high” ratings across all phases. The only environmental aspect to receive an overall “low” risk rating across all shale development phases was seismicity.

The report identified several issues, such as frequency of surface spillages, potential frequency and significance of road accidents involving trucks carrying hazardous substances, noise impacts during drilling and risks of groundwater contamination following abandonment, as “not classifiable” due to a lack of relevant data.

“It is concluded that a wide range of aspects of shale gas development could pose significant environmental risks,” the report states. “… The risk assessment does not take account of site-specific mitigation and control measures, and should therefore be used to highlight attention towards aspects which require specific focus during the development of state policy with regard to shale gas development.”

Paul Roberts, co-founder of Citizen Shale and a member of O’Malley’s fracking advisory commission, said in a release about the study, “Western Marylanders face the real threat that high risks projected on paper today could turn into a real poisoned well, sick child or lost tourism business tomorrow. These findings only underscore the need for General Assembly action this year.”

Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick) and Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery) have introduced the Shale Gas Drilling Safety Review Act this session “to ensure our communities get the answers they deserve and to ensure the General Assembly has a say in the ultimate decision,” Young said in the release.

The legislation would prohibit MDE from issuing a permit for fracking of a well for the exploration or production of natural gas until specified conditions are met, according to Senate Bill 745/House Bill 1122.

“With such high risks staring our communities in the face, the General Assembly simply can’t justify sitting on the sidelines any longer,” CCAN Director Mike Tidwell said in the release. “Tragedies like the recent Chevron gas well explosion in Pennsylvania are all too common. Meanwhile, the proposed Cove Point gas export facility would dramatically increase pressure to bring fracking and the associated risks not only to Western Maryland but to communities lying atop the four other gas basins spanning our state.”