March 29, 2015

Rascovar: Fracking follies at the State House

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Anti-fracking demo

Photo above: An anti-fracking protest in January at an event attended by the new governor, Larry Hogan.

By Barry Rascovar

For MarylandReporter.com

Shakespeare, as usual, had it right. “Full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” That describes the squabbling in Annapolis over hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.”

It is a phantom issue in Maryland.

Environmentalists and do-gooder legislators are panicked that fracking will mean earthquakes, tainted drinking water, dirty air, despoliation of pristine farmland and other biblical plagues. They want to bar this drilling procedure forever in Maryland.

Never mind that wide-spread fracking has been going on since 1950. In those 65 years, more than one million wells have been fracked, in which a combination of water, sand and chemicals is pumped under high pressure deep into shale formations. This fractures the rock and sends deposits of oil and/or natural gas gushing to the surface.

Low oil prices = No fracking

There’s only a tiny part of Maryland where hydraulic fracturing into the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation is viable — in far Western Maryland, i.e., portions of Garrett County and a bit of Allegany County. The number of farmers who might benefit from oil and gas royalties is very small.

Moreover, no oil or gas driller is interested in Maryland any longer.

The steep plunge in oil and gas prices makes fracking in the state far too costly now or any time in the foreseeable future.

So the arguments in Annapolis are largely speculative.

Environmentalists continue to spout off about the doom and gloom that will descend on Maryland if fracking is allowed — part of a larger argument by environmental zealots who seek to ban coal and even gas-fired power plants, nuclear power plants, the export of liquefied natural gas, as well as wind farms in state parks (they won that fight) and wind farms on the lower Eastern Shore.

O’Malley study

The O’Malley administration, never a friend of business-development if it bumps up against the fears of the environmental community, forbid fracking for three years while it conducted a lengthy, in-depth, scientific study.

The results pleased no one: The research showed fracking could be done safely in Maryland, but only under very strict state supervision — the strictest rules in the nation.

Even that hasn’t made environmentalists happy. Nothing short of a permanent ban will satisfy them.

A bill imposing another three-year moratorium — totally meaningless in today’s low-cost energy world — has made it out of the House of Delegates. Prospects in the Senate are less certain. The bill calls for a 36-month study that would largely duplicate the O’Malley administration’s extensive research.

Meanwhile, a Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County, offers an even more extreme step that kills any possibility of fracking coming to Maryland. It imposes extraordinary legal liability standards, calling fracking “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous” and requires a $10 million insurance policy that must be in place for six years after drilling ends.

Few side effects

Funny thing: Over the past 65 years, fracking has been conducted without much in the way of negative side effects. The industry has used fracking over 1 million times and the number of “ultrahazardous” outcomes has been tiny. “Abnormally dangerous”? It would be hard to make that assertion stand up statistically.

It would be as if the Maryland legislature declared airplane travel “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous” due to a few highly publicized crashes — even though the odds of being killed this way are 1 in 30 million.

The fracking follies in Annapolis are a case of populist rhetoric run amuck.

It’s a do-gooder attempt to outlaw something that is no longer on the radar screen in Maryland — and won’t be for years or decades to come.

Waste of Energy

Making it impossible for oil and natural gas companies to drill in Maryland — even under exceptionally close state supervision — is the sort of anti-business hostility Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. may not be able to tolerate. A veto could await either the House bill or the Senate bill.

Still, all of this is academic — an exercise in wasted energy.

As long as oil and gas prices remain low, fracking has zero future in Maryland. The legislature has better things to do in its remaining days before its April 13 adjournment.

Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be contacted at www.brascovar@hotmail.com

  • MrPittsburgh

    It’s obvious reporter Barry Rascovar has been drinking the oil & gas industry Kool-Aid. In SW Pennsylvania we have had the fracking spills and fish kills, well explosions, contaminated river and creek water from industry dumping, and heard more about all the airborne contaminates during drilling and fracking, backed by professional testing. Over 1,000 truck trips per well has no effect on the environment? Come on Barry, do some homework! Ten Mile Creek, which flows into the Monongahela River revealed so much radioactivity from shale wastewater dumping that the Pa fish commission is not going to stock it with fish this year. Maryland’s concerns are REAL!

  • Buypass

    Environuts in Maryland Statehouse? Who knew?

  • Rhoe

    It only takes one tiny “ultrahazardous” outcome to devastate Garrett County, there is no room for error. No study has been done on the economic impact of fracking and tourism and, water is our “gold”. And Barry, ask the residents in PA where over 250 documented wells have been compromised. I suppose they’re alarmists and “tree-huggers” as well. I’ll do your homework, just google EPA, PA Determination Letters.

  • Reality Checker

    So let me see if this dumb old hillbilly resident of Garrett County gets it right. Bear with me because us hill folks are not quite as slick as you big city reporters. You want me to raise my grandchildren next to a fracking operation and the sludge with all those fancy chemical names that may come out of my faucet should be of no concern. Ok it will help thicken up the babies formula. Don’t matter if the kid dies of some wild unknown related disease in a few years as long as the profits from fracking hit the correct pocketbooks, right?
    Actually Mr. Roscover, you’re apparently an idiot or just the paid mouthpiece of the gas industry. Gas fracking is a very real possibility in my Garrett County back yard. Hundreds of leases have already been signed and hundreds more are in the works. This means hundreds of millions of gallons of water to be contaminated. Perhaps we could ship the contaminated water to Anne Arundel County to dispose of. How about right next to your house Mr. Roscover or maybe Mr. Energy, aka Larry the Gas Guy? It sure is a patriotic endeavor, selling off as much of our natural resources as possible. The heck with our national needs in the future. The communist countries need our gas and are willing to pay big bucks for it. Hail China!
    Fracking has indeed been around for a few decades but not horizontal fracking such as what is being proposed in my backyard. Horizontal fracking is a technology that has only been used for about five years and is considerably more dangerous to the environment. Since it’s all a big folly and no one should be concerned about fracking how about publishing a list of the chemicals used in the fracking fluid. Come on how bad can it be. And as for liability for damage, why should the poor old gas drilling companies be responsible for any damage and spills. Let’s pass that buck on to the neighboring property owner. How about the next time an oil tanker spills in the Chesapeake Bay, who should be responsible for the cleanup? The shipper/oil company or the property owner who suffers the damage. According to many politicians the land owner should be responsible.
    They say the mountain vote won the election for Hogan. Believe me, there are many, many folks up here that would sing a different tune if the election were to be held tomorrow. And finally you may think that fracking doesn’t affect you. Nothing could be further from the truth. Remember the Potomac River origins are in prime fracking country in Garrett County. Hey, it all flows down hill. Understand that the Taylorsville and Delmarva natural gas basins are prime for fracking in a few more years. These gas basins run under St. Mary’s, Calvert, Anne Arundel and most of the eastern shore. I bet those drilling rigs will really look nice out your back window just as they do in my back yard.

  • Mark

    This article is technically inaccurate. The Fracking technique the author is referring to is vertical fracking which has been used for a number of years. Unconventional horizontal fracking is new technology that is unproven, requires huge quantities of water, is a much more industrial proces, has a track record of causing earthquakes (confirmed by the U.S. Geological Survey), methane leaks, water contamination and even damage and interruption to conventionally fracked gas wells.

    The author is either extremely uneducated about the process, or more likely, is supporting the industries corporate special interest point of view.

  • b-man

    MrPittsburgh, you also are clueless as far as the process and industry are concerned. It is interesting to see how people ignorant to a topic can have such a biased opinion over an issue that doesn’t apply to them.

  • Mark

    What happened to my comment?