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Some fear Md. will miss out on natural-gas boom

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Energy industry specialists are warning that Maryland may miss out on the national economic boom generated by the natural-gas drilling process known as fracking if the state approves a new bill to impose a moratorium while its environmental effects are studied.

"I think the people who would author a ban or a moratorium on this process would have to explain to a lot of people in the state why they voted against them getting jobs," Steve Everley, spokesman for Energy in Depth, a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America said of the process, formally called hydraulic fracturing. "We can talk about how safe this is, ... but at the end of the day we know this is safe, and calls for bans are driven more by ideology than by fact-based research."

The fracking boom, slowed in recent days by falling natural-gas prices, has produced economic revivals in states such as North Dakota and Pennsylvania in recent years.

State Delegate Heather Mizeur, who represents a Montgomery County district, said she plans to reintroduce a bill next year to hit the pause button on drilling permits pending more research on fracking – the process of releasing natural gases by fracturing shale with an injection of water, sand and chemicals. A similar bill passed the state House of Delegates, but died in the state Senate. Already, Democratic state Sens. Brian Frosh and Jaime Raskin say they will back the new bill.

"If you want to drill in Maryland, you have to prove it can be done safely," Ms. Mizeur said. "No studies, no fracking. I say to the oil and gas industry: Don't tell us that in order to have jobs we have to accept flammable tap water and mini-earthquakes as a normal course of business."

The rich Marcellus Shale formation stretches across the northern Appalachian Basin, touching a large number of states, including parts of Western Maryland. The economic forecasting company IHS Global Insight has just released a study stating that the oil and natural-gas industry could support nearly 3.5 million jobs by 2035.

"This is a long-term and sustainable industry," Mr. Everley said. "There are general environmental benefits from using natural gas [that] don't stop at state or even national borders."

The Marcellus Shale is the largest onshore natural-gas reserve in the country with an estimated 262 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to a 2009 study by the Department of Energy. In a recent poll commissioned by the Maryland Petroleum Council, 80 percent of residents said they support natural-gas production, and 75 percent favor drilling in Western Maryland. The council estimated the industry could produce nearly 2,000 new jobs and $1 billion in wages for the state.

But not everyone is convinced studies on fracking have been conclusive.

"The gas has been there for millions of years. It's not going anywhere," Mr. Frosh said. "If we can take advantage of this resource then we should do it – if we can do the studies and not just sit here and fight about it. The burden falls on those who want to drill. I think there's an opportunity everyone can take advantage of, but it needs to be done in a way that won't ruin the homes and lives of those around these drilling sites." The potential danger, the senator said, outweighs the short-run benefit of jobs.

But fracking supporters say the delay and uncertainty will hurt many in the state still looking for jobs in a tough economy.

"This is the usual environmentalist overreaction that unfortunately will cost Maryland," said Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland Republican. He noted that there are 1 million applications of fracking in the United States already in place, and the Environmental Protection Agency and even the head of the White House Office of Science have said there are no documented cases of contaminated drinking water connected to fracking.

But Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the EPA studies focus only on the specific act of drilling shell rock and not any related after-effects. "The evidence is there. You can search online and see real people lighting their tap water on fire on farmland in Pennsylvania."

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