Maryland, whose far western panhandle is within the Marcellus Shale, should place a moratorium on drilling permits until it "can put in place the regulations and enforcement capacity to ensure that we keep our water safe," according to state Delegate Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery County).

While the Marcellus has the potential to make the United States "the Saudi Arabia of natural gas," the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process that has enabled drillers to tap into the shale "has raised red flags," according to Mizeur. The water, sand and chemicals injected during fracking operations "threaten our water supply" and could create a myriad of other problems, Mizeur said in an op-ed column recently published in the Baltimore Sun.

"Permits must not be issued until the state develops comprehensive safety regulations, procedures and the enforcement capacity to minimize that risk moving forward," she wrote.

Congress exempted natural gas fracking projects from clean water rules in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, an Environmental Protection Agency report on fracking and drinking water isn't due until next year, and "no state has been able to properly assess the overall risk that shale drilling and toxic wastewater pose to our environment, our health and our economy...Maryland should also take the time to get this right," according to Mizeur.

Tucked in between Pennsylvania and West Virginia, rural Garrett County is Maryland's most western county and is at the epicenter of the state's Marcellus Shale dispute. With an estimated population of only about 30,000, Garrett County is best known as the home of a popular ski resort and the 3,900-acre Deep Creek Lake, which was created by the construction of the Deep Creek Dam hydroelectric project in the 1920s. More recently it has become a potential drilling site for some Marcellus drillers.

Last year Calgary-based Enerplus Resources Fund acquired 58,500 net acres of undeveloped land in the Marcellus Shale, predominantly located in Garrett County and neighboring Preston County, WV (see Daily GPI, Sept. 24, 2010). The acreage was in areas of limited existing development, but the company said it believed the geologic characteristics were similar to those of Fayette and Somerset counties in southwestern Pennsylvania. Enerplus estimated original gas in place on the acreage of approximately 50-60 Bcf per 640 acres.

Tulsa, OK-based Samson Resources applied in late 2009 to drill three wells in Garrett County and a fourth in neighboring Allegany County, the state's only other Marcellus Shale county. At the time, the company said it would drill dozens of other wells on 70,000 acres in the area if the initial wells were successful. Since then Samson has shelved plans for two of the Garrett County wells and the Allegany well.

Dallas-based Chief Oil & Gas LLC has also applied to Maryland's Department of the Environment (MDE) to drill in Garrett County. Chief has submitted preliminary plans for four potential sites near Friendsville, MD, a few miles north of Deep Creek Lake, according to the Garrett County government. The private operator holds more than 600,000 gross acres in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland.

The Samson and Chief applications remain under review at MDE.

"This is the first time we've ever had permit applications for the Marcellus Shale, so we're carefully reviewing all of the issues," MDE spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus told NGI's Shale Daily Tuesday. "We've also been looking at what's happening in Pennsylvania and New York to make sure we're learning from their experience."

Garrett County expects two more applications to be filed soon for sites near the unincorporated community of Crellin on the county's western edge, according to Cheryl DeBerry, Garrett County economic development natural resources business specialist.