In rural western Maryland, fracking divisions run deep

FROSTBURG, Md. – The small towns and mountainous rural areas of western Maryland are dotted with scores of well heads, a reminder of the copious natural-gas reserves that lie underground.

Here, amid farms, faded industrial sites and a growing number of wineries and tourist attractions, the debate over whether to allow hydraulic fracturing seems far more immediate than in the State House in Annapolis, 170 miles to the southeast.

The controversial drilling method, better known as “fracking,” could bring thousands of jobs and tens of million of dollars in revenue to communities located along the massive rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale. But those benefits would be relatively short-lived, and there is some degree of environmental risk, despite guidelines that state officials say would be among the most stringent in the nation.

The four Republican lawmakers who represent this independent-minded part of the state solidly support fracking and oppose a proposed ban being pushed by downstate lawmakers. But their constituents are deeply divided.

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Many longtime landowners, especially struggling farmers hoping to supplement their incomes with gas royalties and land leases, want in on the fracking boom. Other residents are reluctant, afraid of potential harm to the environment, public health and property values.

The ambivalence was evident one recent afternoon when Del. Wendel Beitzel, R-Garrett, visited the home of Aaron Miller, who was splitting firewood with his sister Heather and wife, Jacey, not far from a natural-gas well head.

All three Millers are Republicans, but none agree with their representative on the merits of fracking, especially given recent news reports about fracking-related earthquakes in places such as Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.

“It’s not a partisan issue,” Heather Miller said. “It’s a hometown, loving-your-environment thing.”

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Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting huge quantities of water, sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressure to release natural gas from rock formations. The industry provides more than two-thirds of U.S. natural gas production now, up from a small fraction in 2000. It has helped the United States keep energy prices low and leapfrog Russia as the world’s leading natural-gas producer.

A two-year state moratorium on fracking is set to expire in October. The House environmental committee held a hearing on the proposal for a permanent ban last week , and the corresponding Senate committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday.

The two bills have 90 co-sponsors – none from Allegany or Garrett counties.

The legislature is also considering bills to extend the fracking moratorium for another two years, and a proposal, introduced by Beitzel and Sen. George Edwards, R-Garrett, to create a fund to compensate landowners who cannot sell or lease their natural gas interests if a ban takes effect. The latter measure has seven co-sponsors in the House, all Republicans from rural parts of the state, and none in the Senate.

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A 2014 Towson University study found that fracking could support more than 2,500 jobs, add about $80 million a year in wages and generate more than $16 million in annual revenue – from taxes on gas extraction and income – during the industry’s first decade of activity in western Maryland.

After 10 years, however, fracking would support fewer than 200 jobs and generate less than $2 million in annual tax revenue, because relatively few workers are needed to manage wells once they are created and the supply of gas becomes depleted over time. Critics also say that a substantial number of fracking workers could come from out of state.

“I don’t like all the propaganda about jobs, because it’s all temporary work,” said James Strawser, 71, a fracking opponent who owns a 70-acre berry farm in Garrett County.

He and others say they are concerned about environmental risks, pointing to greenhouse-gas emissions and a growing list of man-made earthquakes and water-contamination incidents. Industry supporters say activists exaggerate the impacts of drilling to drum up fear.

“This issue has been sensationalized all along, and that’s difficult to accept,” said Joyce Bishoff, 68, whose family owns 300 acres in Garrett County, including gas rights.

A 2014 Stanford University report concluded that gas and chemicals from fracking rarely migrate to drinking-water aquifers. It also said that producing and burning natural gas instead of coal reduces water consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions. A Rice University study found that fracking wastewater is less toxic than similar waste from coal production.

As for earthquakes, the U.S. Geological Survey says that injecting fracking wastewater deep underground for disposal, a common practice, could cause damaging quakes, but that the tremors related directly to drilling are “almost always too small to be a safety concern.”

Maryland’s environmental department last year proposed fracking regulations that would require the wastewater to be treated or recycled, rather than disposed of underground. The rules would ban drilling in four watersheds, including the popular tourist destination of Deep Creek Lake, and require four layers of cement and steel casing around wells to prevent water, gas and other fluids from migrating to other areas.

Advocates for a ban say no amount of regulation can safeguard the public from the impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

Many of western Maryland’s strongest fracking proponents are longtime residents who could gain financially from selling and leasing their land and mineral rights. Others are conservatives who bristle at being told what they can do with their property.

The opposition is led by environmentalists, newer residents with vacation homes in resort areas and small-business owners with ties to the region’s growing tourism industry, which helped spur an economic recovery after widespread manufacturing declines.

The towns of Friendsville, Mountain Lake, and Frostburg all have banned fracking in recent years.

“People have these cherished memories of coming here for generations, and we’re trying to tap into that sentiment,” said Paul Roberts, 58, who runs a winery in Garrett County and created one of the region’s leading anti-fracking groups. “That’s been a powerful element of why it’s become an emotional issue for so many people in the state.”

Shawn Bender, who has 55 acres in Accident, Maryland, but does not own the land’s mineral rights, said gas extraction isn’t much different from the timber, coal and farming industries that have long served as part of the region’s economic foundation.

“People who grew up here understand that natural-resource development is going to have an impact,” said Bender, 34, a vice president at Beitzel Corp., a local company that prepares drilling sites and supports gas extraction. “We’re in the business of knocking down trees and moving dirt.”

Terry Bolinger, 73, a retired lab technician who worked for a tire maker, said “there’s no way they can pump those chemicals into the ground without contaminating the water supply.”

But his son Terry Bolinger Jr. disagrees. “I don’t think we have a choice but to use that method for producing energy unless you want to go back to the Stone Age,” said the younger Bolinger, a 46-year-old driver for a delivery service.

Some fracking critics have suggested that Beitzel could benefit financially from the drilling practice, either because of the 300 acres he owns in Garrett County or because of Beitzel Corp., which was founded by a distant cousin.

The lawmaker said that he has no financial stake or role in the company. He also said he does not own the gas rights for his own property, much of which is off-limits to drilling because it is either designated for agricultural preservation or located within one of the watersheds that would be protected under the state’s proposed regulations.

Too often, Beitzel said, the debate over fracking boils down to haves vs. have-nots. “If you don’t have property with natural gas, then you have nothing to gain from it, and it’s easier to be opposed to it.”

On a recent Sunday, at a restaurant after church, Beitzel, Bishoff and Bender joined a few other fracking supporters for coffee at Annie’s Kitchen, bemoaning what they described as a loss of property rights and potential income if a ban takes effect.

The lawmakers said that, at a hearing in Annapolis several years ago, fracking opponents suggested that western Marylanders are impoverished, uneducated and unable to fully understand the implications of the extraction method.

“Anyone that speaks out for natural-gas development gets booed and laughed at,” Bender said. “And a lot of people locally just aren’t interested in putting themselves out like that.”

Later that day, more than 60 anti-fracking activists met in downtown Frostburg to plan new outreach and train advocates to lobby elected officials.

Down the street, a “Frack Free Frostburg” sign hung in the window of A Place to Eat, Chris Aguilar’s Texas barbecue restaurant. Haitian rap music played on the stereo, and a petition in support of the fracking ban sat by the register.

The 36-year-old Texan came to western Maryland to work on power lines, and settled in the area about 10 years ago to launch his first restaurant. As he prepared homemade tortillas and a huge slab of pork for the smoker, he said he is confident the fracking industry will never take root in the nearby hills.

“We can’t be bought by special interests,” Aguilar said. “If we send that message to other states, they’ll ban it as well.”