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Western Maryland's Fight Over Fracking

Updated: Friday, May 23 2014, 12:46 PM EDT

Natural gas is one of Maryland's most abundant resources; the western part of the state sits on roughly a billion dollars' worth.

But state officials won't allow landowners to access it because the process to do so is controversial. Now, for one Western Maryland town with a past rich in mining, it could be a chance to re-write their future.

As coal mining continues to decline, so does the economy in Allegany County. Politicians thought they had a plan to turn things around a few years back but what's surfaced since is a statewide fight over fracking.

"We were ready to go," Allegany County Commissioner William Valentine said. "It's just the state came in and said, 'We're not going to allow it.'"

Geologists are largely at odds over just how much natural gas could be buried within the Marcellus Shale, a deep rock formation stretching from West Virginia all the way up into part of New York.  Two Maryland counties happen to sit right above the shale, rich in organic material that can only be extracted through fracking.

"Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing and it means drilling into the shale, drilling actually laterally, horizontally some great distance and then using high pressure fluid to crack the rocks," David Vanko, Dean of the Fisher College of Science and Mathematics at Towson University, explained.

The site in Allegany County was designated to be the first drill point in the state; a spot where scientists and state officials could closely study it for safety.

Though technology continues to improve, making the process safer there have been a few instances of ground water contamination years ago, in other states. Environmentalists have gone to Annapolis to protest any bill that would lift the state's ban on fracking.

According to non-governmental environmental organization Greenpeace; "The hydraulic fracturing process poses multiple threats to water supplies. In order to frack, an enormous amount of water is mixed with various toxic chemical compounds to create frack fluid. This frack fluid is further contaminated by the heavy metals and radioactive elements that exist naturally in the shale. A significant portion of the frack fluid returns to the surface, where it can spill or be dumped into rivers and streams. Underground water supplies can also be contaminated by fracking, through migration of gas and frack fluid underground."

But commissioner Valentine insists there's proof the process is safe.

"We know how to take care of our land and we don't need people who can't tell a maple tree from a pine tree telling us how to take care of our property," Valentine said. He argues that the ban is nothing more than politics standing in the way of progress.

When asked about the politics behind his ban on fracking Governor Martin O'Malley responded; "We're not willing to give up a single stream in Maryland for the sake of giving a green light to wildcatters to go frack as they will."

If fracking were allowed in Maryland, landowners would be able to lease the mineral rights to their property and drilling companies would have to pay substantial taxes to the local counties and the state.

Governor O'Malley created a special advisory commission a few years ago to study the economic impact and public health concerns of fracking.  Their final report has been delayed by more than a year and is not expected to be completed until the end of 2014.

Western Maryland's Fight Over Fracking

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