Shale gas development in western Maryland returned to the realm of possibility on Monday after regulators with the state Department of the Environment (MDE) met a key deadline and proposed rules governing hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to a panel of state lawmakers.
Two years ago, the Maryland General Assembly passed SB 409, requiring MDE to create fracking regulations by Oct. 1, 2016 (see Shale Daily, June 3, 2015). The law also established a two-year moratorium on the practice, which expires on Oct. 1, 2017.
MDE submitted its proposed rules on fracking to the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR). It also submitted draft regulations for underground injection wells to the panel.
"These will be the most stringent and protective environmental shale regulations in the country," Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said. "If fracking ever comes to western Maryland, these rigorous regulations will be in place beforehand to help ensure safe and responsible energy development."
Only two western panhandle counties in Maryland -- Allegany and Garrett -- overlie the Marcellus Shale, which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates could contain as much as 2.383 Tcf of technically recoverable natural gas.
Rules on water protection, well construction
Under MDE's proposed fracking regulations, a well pad may not be located within 2,000 feet of a private drinking water well; within 2,000 feet parallel to and above the surface water intake of a public drinking water supply or the discharge of a spring used for drinking water; or within 1,000 feet of a wellhead protection area.
Well pads would also be prohibited within the watersheds of Bradford Lake, Piney Reservoir and Savage Reservoir. They would also not be permitted within 300 feet of a stream or wetland of special state concern; within 100 feet from any other wetland; or within the watershed of Deep Creek Lake. MDE has the option of listing additional reservoirs if oil and gas production occurs outside Allegany and Garrett counties.
MDE would require operators to conduct one year of baseline water monitoring of the surface and groundwater in the vicinity of the well pad before operations can begin. Operators would be required to take samples from private drinking water wells within 2,500 feet of a proposed well pad.
Operators would also be required to use four concentric layers of steel casing and cement for well construction, as well as be required to conduct integrity and pressure testing at several points when casing and cement is placed. In addition, they would have to certify the well's integrity before fracking operations. Ongoing integrity testing would be required throughout the life of the well.
Air quality, emergency response rules
MDE also would require that operators deploy the best available technology for controlling air emissions, especially from compressors, control devices, storage tanks and pipelines. A leak detection and repair program will also be required of operators.
Operators would have to estimate annual methane emissions from their well pads. If they are notified by MDE that allowances are available, they must purchase them to offset methane emissions. Meanwhile, MDE would also amend its existing air toxics regulations to include equipment associated with fracking. Companies would be required to estimate emissions from those operations as well, and demonstrate, through modeling, that ground-level concentrations aren't harmful to neighboring residents.
Permit applicants under the rules would have to submit an emergency response plan outlining procedures and responses to events such as spills, releases, fires and blowouts. They would have to also notify MDE within 30 minutes of an incident and immediately clean up and spills or releases and properly dispose of the waste. Each well must also be equipped with at least two redundant blowout preventers.
Wastewater management, well plugging and bonding
MDE would require that operators keep flowback and produced water in a closed loop system and recycle at least 90% of wastewater at the well pad, unless they can demonstrate that it would not be practicable to do so. Flowback and produced water may not be applied to land or used for de-icing; it could only be sent to a wastewater treatment facility.
Under the proposed rules, the disposal of flowback or produced water would be prohibited at Class II underground injection wells. Revisions to existing underground injection control regulations would also prohibit the construction of new Class II underground injection wells in Maryland.
Operators would also be subject to detailed procedures for plugging wells and reclaiming a site. They would be required to post a bond of at least $50,000 to cover the cost of plugging a well and site reclamation, and maintain insurance to cover personal injury, property damage and liability for environmental pollution.
MDE said that after a review by the AELR, the proposed rules are to be published in the Maryland Register and be open for public comment for 30 days.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who was elected in 2014, during the gubernatorial campaign said he supported fracking and Marcellus development in the state (see Shale Daily, Nov. 26, 2014). But he declined to veto SB 409 when it came across his desk months after taking office.
Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said upon first blush MDE's proposed regulations appear to be the strictest in the country.
"Looking at all of the setbacks and different requirements, there are a lot of areas that would not be open [to development]," Cobbs told NGI's Shale Daily on Wednesday. "They seem much more restrictive than any other state regulations. Compared to most other states, it looks like it would be really difficult and expensive to develop [wells] here."
Cobbs added that several state lawmakers have threatened to introduce legislation that would ban fracking altogether. The General Assembly is in session from January through April.
"If the normal process occurs, [MDE's proposed rules] would be adopted before the legislature started," Cobbs said. "But then obviously if they went ahead and banned fracking, that's a whole different story."
Environmentalists continued to voice opposition to the proposed rules.
"The Hogan administration should be listening to our pleas to heed the growing body of scientific evidence against fracking," said Nadine Grabania, board secretary for the environmental group Citizen Shale. "Instead, MDE has released regulations that weaken protections already proposed.
"[We have] no confidence in the state's ability to regulate this hazardous activity, nor in its commitment to monitor and enforce those regulations. We urge the General Assembly to save our communities from the Hogan administration's plans for a misguided experiment, and to ban fracking."