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New Governor May Open Western Maryland to Fracking

In the Big Savage River in Western Maryland, two men stand in the stream beneath a forested cliff.   As a light snow falls, they cast their fly rods in a whip-like motion, their long lines tracing the shapes of S’s that hover and grow in mid- air before lashing forward to float on the clear water.

This is a special place in Maryland, and one that we cannot afford to lose," said Nick Weber, an avid fly fisherman who volunteers with a clean water advocacy group called Trout Unlimited.

Trout Unlimited recently issued a report warning that allowing drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Western Maryland's Savage River watershed -- or in Maryland's state forests -- could rip up the state’s largest wooded area, industrialize a landscape that is valued for nature tourism, and pollute the region’s best trout fishery.

The likelihood of fracking in Western Maryland rose last week when voters elected Larry Hogan, a Republican who said on the campaign trail that he wants to open the state to drilling.

"The impacts (of drilling) would be a tremendous threat," said Weber, past chair of the Mid-Atlantic Council of Trout Unlimited.  "The habitat could be destroyed, or partially inhibited, which could kill the fish.”

Maryland so far has not allowed hydraulic fracturing, a technique in which drillers blast water, chemicals, and sand into shale rock formations to release natural gas.  But just to the north in the same gas-rich Marcellus shale formation, Pennsylvania has permitted companies to drill extensively, even in state forests and parks.

Governor-Elected Hogan said during a televised debate on October 18 that he favors allowing drilling and fracking in Maryland.

"Well, we’re sitting on an economic gold mine, with the Marcellus shale in Western Maryland," Hogan said. "Many of the states in our region, with Pennsylvania and West Virginia, are really taking advantage of it, and we haven’t.  During the O’Malley/Brown administration, they have been kicking the can down the road and failing to make any real decisions.  We want to extract clean natural gas.”

A fracking advisory commission assembled by the O’Malley Administration will soon release a report that – in its draft form – recommends that the state not allow drilling in the drainage area around the Savage River in Western Maryland.

The watershed around the Savage should be avoided in part because spills of toxic fracking chemicals -- or the dumping of polluted drilling wastewater -- could contaminate the river, which feeds a reservoir that is a source of drinking water for local residents, according to the draft advisory report.  Fracking should be banned around the Piney Reservoir and Broadford Lake in Western Maryland, according to the draft report.   But the report will just provide a recommendation from the outgoing Democratic administration, not a law that the new Republican governor will have to follow.

Hogan’s political ally in western Maryland,  State Senator George Edwards, predicted after the election that drilling could soon start in Western Maryland, even in the Savage River State Forest and in -- or beneath -- other public lands.

“Governor Hogan supports drilling for gas – I know he does, he told me," Edwards said.  "Keep in mind that a lot of the gas that’s under state land  is owned by individuals. And a lot of those deeds have the right for people to get their property. And in Maryland, minerals are considered property.  So you could get into a legal thing that would say you a right to drill, even if it is state land.”

Ken Pavol, a retired biologist who for years managed Western Maryland's fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said he opposes the idea of allowing drilling in state forests and parks.

"I just don‘t think it (drilling) is an appropriate use in a state forest, which has so many multiple uses – many of which center around recreation, fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, and bird watching."

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said there are no plans to drill in the Savage River State Forest.   Two email messages sent to the Hogan campaign seeking comment were not returned.

Advocates of drilling in Maryland argue it will bring millions of dollars in royalties to local landowners and taxes for local and state government.  But roads jammed with drilling fluid tankers, and wooded areas clear-cut for drilling pads, could also bore a hole in the region’s tourism economy.  And that could drain what makes Western Maryland valuable beyond any count of cash.