CITIZEN SHALE, 8 MARCH 2016
Further Information: Paul Roberts, Citizen Shale, 301.746.4287
ANNAPOLIS — Enhanced safety requirements at Accident’s natural gas storage facility are being considered by the Maryland Department of the Environment. But at a House of Delegates bill hearing last week, the department opposed attempts to codify into state law protections designed to prevent disastrous releases like the one late last year near Los Angeles.
The House Environment and Transportation Committee heard testimony on March 2 from several western Marylanders in support of the legislation. Before the hearing, Garrett County’s elected representative, Del. Wendell Beitzel, submitted a letter of opposition to Committee Chairman Kumar Barve, the Montgomery County Democrat who was champion of the 2015 moratorium on shale gas development.
A decision on whether to recommend the bill to the full House could come as early as next week.
Del. Andrew Platt from Montgomery County introduced the bill after a blow-out in Porter Ranch, Calif., sickened hundreds and forced some 2,000 families into temporary housing. The blown well leaked toxic pollutants for four months and hundreds of millions of cubic feet of methane — a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide — because the facility’s owner had no way to shut it off. The utility also lacked an emergency plan.
“This bill is a common-sense attempt to prevent a Porter Ranch-type event from occurring in Maryland,” said Del. Platt
The Accident Dome storage facility, owned by Spectra Energy of Houston, is the state’s only underground gas storage field. The bill requires Spectra to increase well-head inspections using advanced infra-red detection technology, ensure mechanical integrity of the facility’s 84 existing wells and their valves, and set operating well-pressure limits.
MDE first took "no-position" on the bill, then made a last-minute change in course to oppose it, calling it redundant to current and forthcoming department rules. An agency spokesman later said that although MDE had no serious objections to the bill’s provisions, the governor’s legislative staff had decided that the administration should oppose the bill.
At the hearing, two Citizen Shale board members testified in support of the bill, along with a resident who lives on the Dome and an emergency services expert. Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters, and Chesapeake Climate Action Network were among the advocacy organizations submitting positions and offering testimony, as well.
In response to MDE’s assertion that the bill wasn’t needed because many of its requirements were already required in regulations, Citizen Shale Board President Paul Roberts said the protections were important enough to be codified in state law. He identified “a common refrain from MDE of ‘No worries, we’ve got this,’ which many people in western Maryland simply don't accept.”
Five years ago, he noted, the agency was set to allow shale gas-drilling using regulations last updated 20 years earlier that didn’t even mention fracking. He said citizen involvement pushed MDE to overhaul the regulations, thus saving many western Marylanders from the miseries experienced by people living near drilling in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Ohio.
The regulatory overhaul in Maryland began under former Gov. Martin O’Malley. The moratorium bill passed last year requires new regulations this year. But no permits may be issued before Oct. 1, 2017, giving legislators one last review of the regulations — in next year’s legislative session.
Also testifying for the bill was Linda Herdering, whose home near Garrett College and the county airport is surrounded by active gas wells. She and her husband, who sold their Husky dog-sledding business last year, frequently hear pressure “blow-downs” coming from Spectra equipment and worry about dangerous emissions. Herdering said the affects on their dogs’ health was also a constant concern. “We probably would not have opened the business if we had known about the Dome when we located there,” she said.
Mark Richards, a Citizen Shale board member and retired Howard County assistant fire chief who lives part-time in Garrett County, warned that the all-volunteer nature of local emergency services, as well as shortages of equipment and training, would pose significant obstacles for crews reacting to a Porter Ranch-type incident. Citizen Shale also supports the bill because it requires a comprehensive risk management plan.
Rick Bissell, Ph.D., a Garrett County resident and professor and graduate program director of emergency health services at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, also testified for the bill. Response times for EMS and back-up crews, if needed, can be long, Bissell said, and the hospital emergency department 25 miles away in Oakland could be swamped quickly by an emergency far less demanding than what happened at Porter Ranch. Total transport time to larger emergency departments in Cumberland or Morgantown could take an hour or more, depending on weather.
A Spectra executive was the only person to testify against the bill. He said that the bill wasn’t necessary — but not for reasons cited by MDE. No regulations are yet approved, he said, but Congress is working with federal pipeline regulators. He claimed that imposing new oversight at the state level could prove “redundant.”