Energy: What is fracking and why has Maryland temporarily prohibited it?

Note: This is the first of a series of informational briefs from the GBC on key issues that impact Maryland and relate to the GBC’s strategic priorities.

Although natural gas has been used as a fuel for centuries, it has become a current topic of great discussion because of the recent 39 percent growth rate in the U.S. natural gas resources base and the recent close examination of the methods used to extract the gas from shale reserves. Natural gas fuels 20 percent of the U.S. economy and generates between three and four million jobs in the U.S.

Natural gas consists primarily of methane. It is found in association with other hydrocarbon fuels such as coal beds and oil fields. It is non renewable. Colorless, shapeless and odorless, natural gas gives off a great deal of energy and far fewer emissions than other fossil fuels. Natural gas emits half the carbon that coal burning does.

The ability of natural gas producers to extract natural gas from shale rock has dramatically changed the industry. Shale gas was previously considered unreachable. With advances in drilling techniques, the gas is accessible and abundant. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that there are 2,587 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas in the United States. Most estimates of gas reserves in the United States have been revised upward by thirty five to 39 percent in the last two years.

Extraction from shale is especially relevant for the mid-Atlantic states as the Marcellus Shale natural gas reserve covers most of the Appalachian Basin on the east coast of the United States. The Marcellus basin, some of which is in Maryland, is a 400-million-year-old formation that stretches from New York to West Virginia. Marcellus holds between 168 to 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas depending on how much of it is recoverable. The Marcellus Shale formation underlies Garrett County and part of Allegany County in western Maryland. In these two counties, gas companies have leased the gas rights on more than 100,000 acres. Although natural gas producers have filed permit applications with the Maryland Department of the Environment, not permits have been issued yet. The hold up is the extraction method known as “fracking.”

Earlier this summer, Governor Martin O’Malley issued an executive order banning fracking until a comprehensive cumulative study is completed. New Jersey recently passed legislation banning fracking while neighboring New York is seeking to lift its moratorium on the controversial method.

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” refers to an extraction method used to bring natural gas to the surface from deep underground in shale beds. Basically the process includes drilling a well and then pumping a mixture of water, acids and chemical additives (in low amounts) into the rock formation at a high pressure. The pressure builds in and about the well. A propping agent (such as sand) is pumped into the fractures to keep them from closing. This releases the gas which is then harvested.

Environmentalists have raised concerns about the levels of toxicity in the fluids used and lack of adequate studies of this method to determine safety levels. There have also been concerns about possible contamination of ground and surface water in drilling areas. In recent testimony before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Maryland’s Acting Secretary of the Department of the Environment, Dr. Robert M. Summers said, “We are proceeding cautiously and deliberately and do not intent do allow drilling and fracking in the Marcellus Shale until the issues are resolved to our satisfaction.”

The other side of the equation is equally compelling. It is estimated that as many as 1,600 wells could be drilled in 128,000 acres in Garrett County and 637 wells in 51,000 drillable acres in Allegany County. Lease payments, royalties, taxes, and jobs would bring an economic boom to these western counties.

Learn more about natural gas:

Comments are closed.