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Natural gas drilling in Garrett County could affect Washington County recreation, officials say

February 27, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN — While the portion of the Marcellus Shale in Washington County probably isn’t developable for natural gas, drilling in Garrett County, Md., might affect recreation here, including fishing, hunting, hiking and snowmobiling, Maryland environmental officials said Monday.

Drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale could affect wildlife and aquatic life, forest habitats and important streams because most of the areas in Garrett County leased for future drilling contain at least one priority natural resource area, according to an environmental presentation Monday to a state advisory commission at Hagerstown Community College.

The Marcellus Shale, extending from New York to West Virginia, is considered the largest onshore natural gas reserve in the nation, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment’s website,  www.mde.state.md.us.

In addition to providing a domestic source of natural gas, gas production from the Marcellus Shale could create thousands of jobs in the multistate area, though the focus of Monday’s meeting of the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission was possible environmental impacts and the application process for drilling.

While other states, such as Pennsylvania, have permitted drilling into the shale to access the gas, there is no Marcellus Shale drilling in Maryland yet, the MDE said.

The environmental department and the Department of Natural Resources, along with an advisory commission, are studying Marcellus Shale drilling issues and must present recommendations for the best practices for natural gas exploration and production in the Marcellus Shale in Western Maryland by Aug. 1.

The shale formation underlies Garrett and Allegany counties, and the western portion of Washington County, according to a map of shale gas areas at the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s website at www.eia.gov.

“Washington County does have some Marcellus Shale, but it outcrops to the point where it’s probably not going to be productive for gas,” said C. Edmon Larrimore, mining program manager for the MDE.

After the meeting, MDE Secretary Robert Summers said the Marcellus Shale does not “extend, at least in a developable way, into Washington County.”

Summers and Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin attended Monday morning’s meeting, which lasted more than three hours and had an audience of about 35 people.

Much of the discussion focused on Garrett County and some on the western portion of Allegany County.

The state environmental department has received seven applications to drill in the Marcellus Shale, though only one is actively being reviewed, Larrimore said outside the meeting room.

Less than 10 percent of areas leased in Garrett County for potential shale drilling fall outside at least one of four priority resource areas, said Catherine McCall, coastal planning program manager for the Natural Resources department. Priority resource areas are areas with important streams; with high quality forest habitat; that are considered the best ecological areas and are targeted for conservation efforts; and/or that contain sensitive or rare species and unique landscapes, McCall said.

About 68 percent of Garrett County’s acres contain green infrastructure, including large areas of unbroken forest around the Savage River and Green Ridge state forests, and the Youghiogheny River, according to McCall’s presentation.

McCall also talked about how fragmenting or breaking up high-quality forest habitat could result in the loss of certain species and wildlife communities. In addition to large mammals such as bears using large forests, some species that live inside forests include owls and songbirds such as warblers, tanagers and vireos.

Endangered species in Garrett County include northern goshawks and green salamanders, McCall said.

Nick Weber, an advisory commission member and chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Council of Trout Unlimited, asked McCall about the potential impact on brook trout from natural gas drilling. The Savage River Watershed is the largest intact brook trout watershed south of Maine, he said.

McCall said brook trout are “very sensitive” to changes in water quality.

McCall’s presentation used guidelines that had each well pad taking up 5 acres. A 1,000-acre leased parcel would have four or five well pads that would be spaced 240 acres apart. Total acreage affected from well pads would be up to 25 acres, not including road development to carry out gas and wastewater from drilling.

To drill shale for gas, companies use hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” according to the Energy Information Administration. A mixture of water, chemicals and sand is pumped into a well, which can run horizontal, to access the gas. The sand keeps the fractures open in the rock so the gas can flow from the shale to the well.

Water availability, hazardous fracturing fluid, disposal of fracturing wastewater and earthquakes are potential environmental concerns associated with shale gas drilling, according to the Energy Information Administration’s website.


To share comments

To send the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission comments about drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale in Western Maryland, go to the Maryland Department of the Environment’s website at www.mde.state.md.us.

Click on the link for the “Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative.”

In the menu on the left side is a link, “Public Opportunity to Comment,” to email the commission.

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