- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O'Malley on Tuesday announced the appointment of panel members to study the short- and long-term effects of potential natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale in western Maryland.

Mr. O'Malley last month set a timeline for state agencies to conduct a three-part study in consultation with the advisory commission to present findings and recommendations.

“I am mindful of the potential benefits that could come from Maryland’s Marcellus Shale gas reserves,” Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, said in a statement. “There are, however, many legitimate public health, safety, environmental, and natural resource issues concerning exploration and extraction of gas from the Marcellus Shale in Maryland.”

Meanwhile, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said his office has put together two documents to inform landowners about their rights in dealing with speculators who seek mineral rights. The documents, titled “Leasing Your Land for Natural Gas Drilling — Tips for the Landowner” and “Dormant Minerals Interest Act — Questions and Answers,” are available on the attorney general’s website.

The Marcellus Shale is the nation’s largest-known natural gas reservoir. In the last three years, drilling in Pennsylvania has transformed wide areas in the western and northern parts of the state. While it has provided an economic boost to a wide range of businesses, drilling techniques and disposal of large amounts of often-toxic drilling wastewater have raised concern about environmental damage.

Robert Summers, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the department currently has the authority to place all reasonable conditions in permits necessary to provide for public safety and to protect public health and the environment.

“What is lacking is a complete understanding of the risks inherent in deep drilling and fracking and consensus about how to protect against those risks,” Mr. Summers said in a statement.

Fracking is the process by which drillers pump large amounts of water mixed with chemicals and sand into wells to crack the shale and release the gas.

The panel includes representatives from the scientific community, the gas industry, environmental groups, citizens and government officials.

Mr. O'Malley signed an executive order in June creating an initiative to determine whether and how gas production can be done without harming public health and the environment. Critics say O'Malley is delaying investment in the state through the initiative.

The Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission will be chaired by David Vanko, a geologist who is the dean of the Jess and Mildred Fisher College of Science and Mathematics at Towson University. The 14-member commission also will include Republican state Sen. George Edwards, of Garrett County, and Delegate Heather Mizeur, Montgomery Democrat. The commission is scheduled to hold its first meeting on Aug. 4 at Rocky Gap State Park.

The Maryland Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources will present findings about the potential benefits of legislation to create revenue sources related to drilling, such as a state-level severance tax by Dec. 31. It also will include recommendations about legislation to establish standards of liability for damages caused by gas exploration and production.

The agencies are scheduled to recommend best practices for all aspects of natural gas exploration and production in the Marcellus Shale by Aug. 1, 2012.

A final report with recommendations relating to the impact of drilling will be due no later than Aug. 1, 2014. It will examine potential impacts such as possible groundwater contamination as well as handling and disposal of wastewater. The report will also include findings on potential impact to forests, greenhouse gas emissions and economic impact.