MS. EMILY BERMAN
We turn now from schools to the environment. Lawmakers in Maryland and Virginia are knee deep in a debate over a practice called fracking. Fracking is when you drill thousands of feet in the ground and inject a mixture of chemicals and grit into shale below. The mixture fractures the rock, releases the trapped natural gas and allows it to seep back out through the drill hole. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley recently proposed funding a series of studies to look at fracking in his state. And the U.S. Forest Service is considering whether to allow fracking in Virginia's George Washington Forest.
MS. EMILY BERMAN
As environment reporter Sabri Ben-Achour tells us, supporters and critics of fracking are very far apart, even when it comes to the facts.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
If there's one thing fueling the uproar over fracking it's fear. I'm standing right now by the Potomac, which is a source of fresh drinking water for most of the D.C. region.
MS. AMY MALL
The U.S. Forest Service is looking at whether or not to allow fracking in the George Washington National Forest, which is only about a hundred miles from Washington, D.C.
That's Amy Mall, she's a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
And the forest is the watershed for the Potomac River, which supplies drinking water to about four million people.
She says fracking near the headwaters of Washington's drinking waters supply is just not a good idea.
Problems could occur at 100 feet below the surface, even if the well is thousands of feet deep. And problems have occurred. For example, the well is a steel pipe that's cemented into place. And it's supposed to protect the aquifers that are underground sources of drinking water. But there are failures.
MR. DREW COBBS
Statistically it's just not proven. I mean, you can make these statements and it's anecdotal evidence or you throw these threats up and scare people, but let's just deal with the facts.
Drew Cobbs directs the Maryland Petroleum Council.
Most of the evidence has been brought forth as anecdotal in nature statistically and studies really have not born that out. Really, the opposite's been shown, that it can be done safely. In Arkansas, the United States Geological Survey conducted a study of 127 private or domestic wells in an area that has been highly developed. Over 4,000 production wells have been put into service in this area over the last 6 to 8 years and basically they concluded there was no damage or harm done to the water in those areas.
In the rest of Virginia, outside of the George Washington Forest, fracking has been going on since the 1950s. And according to the state's department of Mines Minerals and Energy, there have been no documented instances of groundwater or surface water contamination in the state. But in Maryland, the geology is radically different. Fracking would require more than 20 times the volume of fracking liquid--that's the stuff that gets injected into the ground and one of the potential contaminants that people are worried about. Mike Tidwell is with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. He's among those who are concerned.
MR. MIKE TIDWELL
There's been everything from earthquakes triggered by the wastewater from these natural gas drilling rigs to deforestation, just incredible truck traffic through small towns, potentially greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane that's released during the fracking-drilling process. And so there have been a lot of questions that haven't been answered.
William Valentine, a county commissioner in Allegany County, Md., challenges almost all of those claims. His county is one of only three in Maryland where fracking could potentially take place because it's right above what's known as the Marcellus Shale.
MR. WILLIAM VALENTINE
I sit on the governor's commission to study the fracking process and all. And really nobody has been able to come up with a single positive problem with the fracking. And all we're told is there are potential problems. Well, you could potentially get hit by a car whenever you leave your building tonight, but you're still gonna go outside.
He says his region already has heavy infrastructure from the coal industry and points to the experience of neighboring states.
The state of Pennsylvania is making millions and millions of dollars off their Marcellus gas. The state of West Virginia is making oodles of money off of Marcellus gas.
Kevin Sunday is with Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.
MR. KEVIN SUNDAY
We've never seen groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracking itself. What we have seen is where there's a lot of gas in the ground in these shale formations, there's also going to be a lot of gas in the shallow formations as they drill vertically down. If those vertical wells aren't cased and cemented right, there can be a path for those shallow pockets of gas to migrate into an aquifer. There've been a handful of those cases.
Those cases, he says, were due to faulty cement. They could have happened at any well, whether it was a fracking well or not. Sunday says if there's a lesson for other states, it's in the regulatory leg work…
That greatly increased the fracturing fluid disclosure law. It also increased the fine that we could assess. It increased protections of private water supplies. There's new casing and cementing regulations in place. There's a restriction on oil and gas drillers taking their wastewater to treatment plants at discharge. And as a result, we've seen dramatic increases in the amount of flow back water getting recycled.
Kathy Cosco works for West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection. Her advice?
MS. KATHY COSCO
Making sure that environmental regulations are prepared for the industry. And you need to balance the benefits against, you know, what the risks are.
In Maryland a commission is studying those benefits and those risks and will release several reports. The first is expected in August of this year. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and International law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.