The Maryland House of Delegates could vote as early as Tuesday on a bill that would freeze the permitting of Marcellus Shale drilling -- at least temporarily -- while state agencies review the results of various studies into Marcellus development and hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking), including a major study being performed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (see Shale Daily, Feb. 24).

But passage of the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Act (HB 852) would not necessarily stop Maryland's Department of Environment (MDE) from issuing drilling permits, according to a spokesman for Maryland state Delegate Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery), one of the bill's sponsors.

"If at any time during the study MDE believes it has enough information to issue permits, they're free to issue permits any time they like," the spokesman told NGI's Shale Daily Monday, insisting it was not a moratorium.

The bill "requires the state to slow down, collaborate with companies and ensure that drilling can be done safely here and, if so, that it is done carefully," according to Mizeur.

Acting MDE Secretary Bob Summers has told lawmakers that his department supports HB 852. MDE and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) want to put together an advisory committee that includes representatives from government, industry and academia to comprehensively study the impacts of development, according to Summers, who said industry would pay for the cost of the two-year study. In addition to EPA's look at hydrofracking and drinking water supplies, the committee would review studies from New York State and the Delaware River Basin Commission (see Shale Daily, Feb. 9; Dec. 14, 2010; Dec. 10, 2010). The advisory committee would be tasked with finishing its work by July 2013.

In addition to prohibiting MDE from issuing Marcellus drilling permits "unless information becomes available...sufficient to demonstrate that the extraction of natural gas from shale formations in the state can be accomplished without adverse impact to human health, natural resources or the environment," or until after the studies have been issued and reviewed, HB 852 would require MDE to consult with local governments when evaluating permits for drilling within the Marcellus.

If approved by the House, the bill would still need to be approved by the Senate -- where a version of the bill has been stalled in that chamber's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee -- before going to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has indicated that he supports the proposed moratorium.

The Maryland Petroleum Council has urged O'Malley to continue to allow drilling in rural Garrett and Allegheny counties in the state's western panhandle, the only counties in the state overlaying the Marcellus.

A Maryland House of Delegates committee recently rejected a proposal calling on MDE to issue Marcellus drilling permits, which was made by Del. Wendell Beitzel, a Republican who represents Garrett and Allegany counties.

O'Malley said during a meeting in Garrett County Monday that his administration will consider science and safety issues when reviewing Marcellus drilling permit applications, according to several local newspapers. O'Malley surprised Allegany County commissioners during a meeting in Cumberland, MD, last week when he indicated interest in developing Marcellus shale gas using a carbon dioxide injection process, rather than with hydrofracking, according to the Cumberland Times-News.

Mizeur has said HB 852 would include a payment mechanism allowing MDE and other state agencies to conduct those studies in a "budget neutral" way.

The EPA last year said it would study the potential risks of hydrofracking on water quality and public health (see Daily GPI, March 19, 2010). The agency has said it hopes to have initial research results by the end of 2012, and to have an additional report completed in 2014 (see Shale Daily, Feb. 22).