Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on Monday signed an executive order requiring the state to undertake a study of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, with recommendations on a possible state-level severance tax and a report on potential impacts of drilling on groundwater among the items due over the next three years.

“While we are mindful of the potential economic and energy benefits that could arise from the production of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale reserves in Maryland, we are also very concerned about an array of issues that have been raised regarding the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract this fuel,” O’Malley said. “Our decisions must be guided by scientific knowledge about the effects of this type of drilling to ensure that we protect public safety and health, groundwater, surface water, and the rural lifestyle and natural resources in Maryland.”

The order requires the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), in consultation with an advisory commission made up of a broad array of stakeholders, to undertake the study in three parts:

The study will also include a review of available results from studies being done by the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior, Department of Energy, the State of New York and the Delaware River Basin Commission (see Shale Daily, April 4; April 1; Dec. 10, 2010; Daily GPI, March 19, 2010).

Rural Garrett and Allegany counties in Maryland’s western Panhandle are the only counties in the state overlaying the Marcellus.

The Maryland Senate ended its 2011 legislative session without voting on a bill (HB 852) that would have frozen the permitting of Marcellus drilling until 2013 while state agencies reviewed the results of various studies into Marcellus development and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) (see Shale Daily, April 14). O’Malley had indicated that he supported the proposed moratorium that would have resulted from the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Act, which had been approved by the House of Delegates in March (see Shale Daily, March 25).

MDE Acting Secretary Bob Summers had told lawmakers that his department and DNR wanted to put together an advisory committee to comprehensively study the impacts of Marcellus development — a project now required by O’Malley’s executive order. But. unlike the failed bill, the order does not call for a freeze on issuing drilling permits.

The executive order was applauded both by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which said it was needed in part because of “Pennsylvania’s checkered experience with fracking,” and by at least one member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

“While I acknowledge that the extraction of natural gas is important to our state and country, we must also understand that oil and gas activities, including hydrofracking, are exempt from many federal environmental laws,” said Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore County), chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee. “Experiences in nearby states have demonstrated that the departments of Environment and Natural Resources and the legislature must set standards to protect our drinking water, land and air when drilling in Marcellus Shale.”

Membership in the advisory committee will include an expert on geology or natural gas production from a college or university, a private citizen from western Maryland, representatives from the gas industry and an environmental organization, and representatives from local governments and businesses in western Maryland, according to O’Malley’s office.