Maryland Regulators Find Fracking Poses Low Risk to Water Supplies

Late last week, the Maryland Departments of the Environment and Natural Resources released their long-awaited draft report on shale development, which found that the risk of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is very low, and that the risks associated with the process are manageable under Maryland’s regulatory scheme. As the report concluded:

“One of the greatest concerns regarding UGWD [unconventional gas well development] is the contamination of water supplies, both ground and surface waters, which may provide sources of drinking water or support ecologically valuable and sensitive aquatic communities. Risks associated with water contamination were rated most commonly as low, and in some cases, moderate, depending on the sensitivity of the receptor.” (p. 1; emphasis added)

Additionally, the report specifically highlights the low-risk of water contamination through surface spills or subsurface releases during both drilling and waste transport. According to the report, this is due to:

“high standards set for casing and cementing practices, management of materials and wastes on and off the site and careful siting resulting from location restrictions, setbacks and geologic studies…” (p. 8)

The report goes on to explain that “[r]isks are inherent in any type of mineral extraction, industrial and construction activity,” but that Maryland has regulations in place that will effectively manage the risks.  As the report puts it:

“Maryland draws from its robust stormwater management, soil erosion and control, and water appropriations programs and examines the effectiveness of proposed best management practices for revising its existing gas and oil development regulations. Together, these existing and proposed practices serve to reduce many risks to western Maryland’s citizens, economy and its high quality water, air and natural resources.” (p. 2; emphasis added)

Of course, this report is just the latest in a long string of studies that found shale development has manageable risks. It also offers a very clear rebuke to anti-fracking activists who have tried for years to convince people that hydraulic fracturing is inherently unsafe.

While this report certainly bodes well for the state of Maryland, it’s important to reiterate that Maryland’s setback regulations – which require a setback of 1,000 feet from a residence and 2,000 feet from a private water well – could end up making development very difficult or even prohibitive. Thus, the way in which Maryland ultimately decides to mitigate the low risks associated with drilling will determine how much development – if any – actually occurs in the state.

Nonetheless, Maryland is fully on track to begin reaping the benefits of shale development. A study from Towson University found that development would bring thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the state. For the sake of Maryland residents who could benefit from this infusion of job opportunities and new investment, hopefully the state can effectively balance environmental protection and economic growth.


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