ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Natural gas drilling in western Maryland would be restricted until the state finishes a two-year study under a bill passed by House lawmakers on Wednesday.
The House of Delegates voted 98-40 to approve the measure on drilling in the Marcellus Shale region in far western Maryland.
A permit for drilling could be granted by the state before the study is completed in 2013, if it is shown that drilling could be done without harming health or the environment. But opponents of the bill say it essentially amounts to a two-year moratorium on drilling that could bring needed revenue to western Maryland and the state.
Supporters, however, said further study is needed to make sure the hydraulic fracturing method used to recover the natural gas doesn’t pose health or environmental risks.
The process involves blasting millions of gallons of chemical-laced water thousands of feet underground to crack shale and release natural gas trapped inside. The Environmental Protection Agency is examining the process to see if it may contaminate drinking water supplies.
Delegate Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill, said she has received 400 emails from Garrett County residents who support the bill, because they have concerns about the drilling.
“We need just a time out,” Mizeur said during a floor debate. “We need to get it right. There are many other states that drilled first and asked questions later. Second chances are expensive. We need to get it right the first time.”
Delegate Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett, said that while there are opponents to drilling in the county, most residents support moving forward to tap into the economic benefits natural gas drilling would bring to the area.
“It’s a question of property rights and what they have and their right to do that,” Beitzel said.
Delegate Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil, said it was wrong for the state to not let people in western Maryland decide what’s best for them.
“There’s a war on rural Maryland and that war is taking place right here in this legislature,” Smigiel said. “The urban areas think that the rural areas are there for them to dictate to, how they live and what they do with their personal property and how they should live their lives.”
But Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, said the study was a prudent approach to protecting the environment and health concerns, not a rural vs. urban battle.
The bill now heads to the Senate.
Environmentalists have been raising concerns that the natural gas drilling rush in Pennsylvania is contaminating rivers and aquifers that supply drinking water. The water that comes up from natural gas wells is intensely salty and tainted with barium, strontium, radium and toxic chemicals.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)