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Though one side of the debate about fracking in Maryland has gained ground, will developers actually break it?

Mar 30, 2015 03:48PM ● By Cate Reynolds

Credit Chesapeake Climate Action Network // An anti-fracking rally at the State House took place during last year’s General Assembly

By Jonathan Yates

As one of its final actions in office, the administration of Governor Martin O’Malley moved to allow for hydraulic fracturing, known commonly as “fracking,” in Western Maryland. And with that measure, Maryland now joins the significant majority of American states in allowing for the controversial practice, which is: “an oil and gas well development process that typically involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals under high pressure into a bedrock formation via the well,” states the U.S. Geological Survey. “This process is intended to create new fractures in the rock, as well as increase the size, extent, and connectivity of existing fractures. Hydraulic fracturing is a well-stimulation technique used commonly in low-permeability rocks like tight sandstone, shale, and some coal beds to increase oil and/or gas flow to a well.”

Maryland is in an opportunistic position of being within the Marcellus Shale region of the Appalachian Basin; a bountiful array of fossil fuel formations that is redesigning the global energy picture. While the Marcellus Shale stretches underneath Western Maryland and into West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the impact of fracking will be felt throughout the state.

With each passing day, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the United States is positioning to become a unique oil and a natural gas player in the world’s lineup of producers. According to National Geographic, “Outside of the United States, there’s neither the legal environment nor the oil services industry capacity to make shale oil and gas development worth the cost. More than 6,000 wells were drilled for unconventional oil in the United States and Canada in 2012, and only 100 outside of North America.”

That was well before the current dive in the price of oil and natural gas.

For the untrained eye, it appears as if the entire United States is one massive shale formation: the Marcellus Shale starts in New England and runs into the mid-Atlantic; the Utica Shale extends into West Virginia and Ohio; the New Albany Shale throughout Illinois; the Monterrey Shale is in California; the Bakken Shale is in North Dakota; the Fayetteville Shale is in Arkansas; and, of course, there is Texas, the largest energy producer in America.

Maryland now joins in that group stretching across America. This is due, in large part, to the recent report from the state departments of Environment and Natural Resources. The study concluded that, with adequate regulation, “…the risks of Marcellus Shale development can be managed to an acceptable level.” Of little surprise, the report was embraced by Republican Governor Larry Hogan.

While nothing is an absolute, especially in politics, the majority of supporters for fracking across the country are Republican.

The opponents are environmentalists, which make a significant voice of the Democratic Party. Of course, in Maryland, and especially with the Chesapeake Bay, the environment is a major issue for any official. And yet, the previous O’Malley administration and the newly inaugurated Hogan agree that fracking is worth its investment. But it remains highly debatable and is worth an examination of the issues—political, environmental, and economic, among others—currently at hand.

Fracking’s political influence cannot be understated. Though Western Maryland, the state’s Sixth District, is currently a Democratic majority, as evidenced by the recent re-election of Representative John Delaney, if fracking develops there, it could become very difficult for him or any Democrat to hold on to an elected office for an extended period.

There are simply too many votes associated with fracking and other aspects of energy production that separate the parties; and that could doom Democratic opposition to such development. Nationally, hot button issues associated with fracking range from the Keystone Pipeline to carbon offsets to making it easier to acquire licenses to drill and build pipelines. There will be many more in Maryland, ranging from zoning matters at the local levels to state tax measures.

On the surface, it would seem that a vote for fracking is a vote against the environment. And conversely that a vote against fracking is a vote for increased taxes. Politics, revenues, taxes, the environment; they are all tied together at the hip on this issue.

For supporters, fracking will generate immediate economic benefits for Western Maryland. The energy business in the state of Maryland will also get stronger. Fracking will bring in a wide range of companies that supply goods and services for the natural gas sector. Obviously, there will be the production elements. Fracking requires drilling on an enormous, advanced scale. It needs trucks, extensive pipeline networks; altogether, a massive infrastructure. And the workers and businesses will increase spending in Western Maryland, generating ancillary revenues for the state. If more revenues are produced, then presumably it will be easier for Hogan to cut taxes. That was the major campaign issue in 2014.

But anything that has to do with the environment eventually affects the Chesapeake Bay, no matter if it does emanate from the mountains at the other end of the state.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States. Its drainage basin already encompasses such energy producers as Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. Pennsylvania is the fourth biggest energy producer in America, with West Virginia being the fifth.

Billions of dollars are currently being poured into the Marcellus and Utica Shales production by these states, so expect more natural gas to be produced by them. In turn, the increase in production could increase the potential of environmental threats to the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

According to the Chesapeake Climate Action Network—one of many environmental watchdogs that opposes fracking in our state—potential threats from the process of fracking include:
  • Water sources—including groundwater, drinking water, and local streams—being contaminated by fracking fluid with toxic chemicals, high levels of salt, and other potentially harmful substances.
  • Land take. Converted to well pads, pipelines, roads, impoundments and other production facilities, and other land take impacts were classified as “very high risk” because 1.2 percent of the land in Garrett or Allegany County would be needed for full development of a gas reservoir.
  • Biodiversity damage results primarily from habitat loss and forest fragmentation, but also from sediment runoff into streams and stream contamination from spills.

The cause of potential environmental threats to the Chesapeake Bay and other areas is not limited to the actual fracking in Western Maryland. The transportation of fossil fuels can be explosive and with tragic consequences as well.

Oil and natural gas has to be carried to markets around the world from the source. This is complex, expensive, and incredibly dangerous in all phases of the process. The rise in the production of oil and natural gas in the United States has caught the transportation sector completely unprepared. That is why the price of natural gas rose so much last winter: there was plenty of natural gas in the ground, but not nearly enough in the way of pipelines to get the fossil fuel to the end user.

Natural gas requires three sets of pipelines to carry it from the fields to the factory or family that uses it for heating, electricity, or other end uses. The first set takes it from the ground to the processing plant. From there it is transported to the market. The last network transports the natural gas to the business or home. Obviously there is more to it, but that is a basic overview. At present, there are more than 300,000 miles of natural gas pipelines that crisscross the United States. There are even more pipeline networks in Canada.

Meanwhile, oil can be hauled in many different ways. The amount on trains has soared dramatically in recent years. In 2012, there were about 233,000 train loads carrying crude. By last year, it rose to an estimated 1.4 million train loads transporting 110 million barrels of petroleum products. If the quality of the railway transportation were rising to meet the increasing quantity of crude oil being shipped, there would not be so much concern about potential infrastructure accidents.

The capabilities of the railway cars leave much to be desired, along with much of the entire transportation infrastructure for oil and natural gas. The Great Recession resulted in many maintenance and repair measures being deferred. As a result, about three quarters of the railway cars used in North America are the DOT-111, called by one expert as a, “Pepsi-can on wheels.” Many of these roll through Maryland on a regular basis on the Amtrak Northeast Corridor.

Trains a mile long with cars brimming with thousands of barrels of oil rattle along the Susquehanna River through towns like Port Deposit to refineries in Delaware. Terminals in the Fairfield industrial area near Baltimore are also receiving increasing shipments of oil. Earlier this year, the Maryland Department of Environment was sued by Norfolk Southern and CSX. The two railways sued the MDE to prevent it from disclosing information about crude shipments in the state.

This was required beginning last May by the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, D.C. Allison Prost, Executive Director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, spoke about the railway traffic with crude oil, stating, “The Susquehanna is the major source of fresh water in the Bay. Any risk to it is a real threat to the Bay. At a time when we are working on restoring our waterways and the Bay, it makes no sense to be adding new threats.” If fracking leads to greater production in Western Maryland, expect transportation of fuel to refineries throughout the Mid-Atlantic to also increase.

But there are other considerations as to how fracking can actually improve the environment at local, state, national, and global levels. The first is that natural gas is a much cleaner burning fuel than coal or oil. Natural gas is replacing coal as the fuel of choice in many utility plants across the United States.
Credit // Aerial view of fracking wells in the Western United States. Will fracking change Maryland’s landscape similarly?
Coal is still the largest source of electricity in the United States, however, there was only one coal energy plant built in 2014 in our country versus the five that came online in 2012, while natural gas facilities have continued to expand their reach into the utility market.

Additionally, alternative fuel sources, such as wind or solar power, cannot efficiently meet the wide scale demands of a modern economy. The development of alternative fuels remains promising, but the falling price of oil and natural gas has lessened the short term demand for alternatives.

Accelerated development of natural gas production and a more prominent industry will lead to increased usage of the fuel. The most obvious example are motor vehicles powered by natural gas. In Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection offers rebates for alternative fuel vehicles. Rebates of $1,000 go to natural gas vehicle owners.

Governments across the country are also increasing the use of natural gas motor vehicles. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have a fleet of natural gas vehicles. Kansas City, Missouri just opened its first natural gas fueling station to service the government fleet, while the city’s public can also buy natural gas from three recently opened compressed natural gas stations. More actions like these can be expected in Maryland.

Fracking, by its very nature, is a divisive issue. It has met opposition across the country. But it is permitted now in more than 40 states. The economic benefits are simply too compelling for many states still recovering from The Great Recession to resist. The Marcellus Shale has proven to be an economic blessing to Pennsylvania. There is every reason to be believe that the Hogan Administration will move to allow for it do the same in Maryland.