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Visiting The Epicenter Of The Fracking Debate

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Joyce and Billy Bishoff standing near their 300-acre dairy farm in Garrett County, Md.
Jonathan Wilson
Joyce and Billy Bishoff standing near their 300-acre dairy farm in Garrett County, Md.

The 12 feet of snow underfoot amplifies the feeling of rural serenity as I trudge to the top of a hill with Billy Bishoff and his mother Joyce, and take in a panoramic view of their 300-acre dairy farm.

There are some people who worry this pristine environment in Garrett, Maryland's westernmost county, is in grave danger of being ruined by the energy industry. That perspective irks the Bishoffs.

Billy turns in a circle, pointing out that even in the beautiful rolling hills of western Maryland, one can see that industry is already everywhere.

"People say that we're going to spoil our neighborhood by having a gas well," he says. "But there's our farm, there is a sand plant... an asphalt plant, our dairy farm... So it's not as if there's no impact at all. We've got to come to some sort of equilibrium on this issue."

The Bishoffs are among the most outspoken landowners in the county, arguing that the shale gas recovery technique of hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking, should be allowed to move forward.

The push for fracking

In 2008, the family was preparing to join a group of landowners who bargained to lease 30,000 acres to gas companies looking to drill into the portion of Marcellus Shale that sits underneath Garrett County soil. It was a deal that would have netted landowners $30 million.

But the deal fell through as the nation's financial collapse kicked in to high gear. Joyce Bishoff says it was also around that time that environmental concerns triggered a backlash against fracking — one that she feels quickly became hysterical.

"As things developed and this became a political situation, I really think things became unbalanced," says Bishop. "I feel that if we're going to look at any subject, I think we have to look at all aspects of it, and I don't think that's been done on a state level."

That's starting to change, from Joyce's point of view. She applauds the work of the Governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, which includes environmental experts, state and local officials, and industry leaders.

But Billy Bishoff says there's still one aspect of the discussion that's often lost on Marylanders in other parts of the state, one that has to do with local economic history. And it's the fact that the oil and gas industry has already been a part of the Garrett County economy for decades.

"There are 250 gas wells in this county, which eventually led to a natural gas storage field, which for many years was the largest property taxpayer in the county, and has provided stable jobs for 30-something for years now," he says. "There are two transmission lines and a compressor station. We do have a history of working with gas in this county, and we know a little bit about it."

The fact remains, however, that right now, it is natural beauty that drives much of the local economy.

Economy boosted by natural beauty

Garrett County is home to Deep Creek Lake, the site of hundreds of vacation homes, and Wisp, a mountain resort that brings skiers in the winter, and golfers in the summer. It means tourism accounts for close to 60 percent of the local economy.

Joyce Bishoff says it also means that there's a growing divide on fracking between property owners who live off the land, and those who've moved here to simply enjoy it and don't want to the land touched.

"That concerns me a lot, because I see that whole situation getting a little tense, and I think we all need to sit down at the table and come up with some solutions here," she says.

Eric Robison lives few towns farther south in the county. He says some of the worst tension exists between the local families who've been here for generations, and those still seen as outsiders.

"I've been here for 15 years, and I'm definitely classified as very new here," Robison says. "There are people who've been here for 35 years, raised their families here, and they're still not a part of that system."

Robison, a construction company owner, is unafraid to stir the pot, and was among the first residents to ask public questions about the lack of regulatory oversight on fracking in Maryland.

Citizen Shale, the coalition of property owners he leads, voiced concerns that helped lead to the existing temporary suspension of fracking in Maryland, and the formation of the Governor's Marcellus Shale advisory commission.

"When I hear a property owner talk about 'this is my right, to develop my resource,' we're not wanting to exclude those rights," he says. "We're just wanting to make sure everybody's rights are taking into consideration with their right."

Robison says he isn't opposed to fracking altogether, but proponents need to remember that if something goes wrong, the problem isn't likely to affect just one property owner or company.

Searching for a solution

During the fracking process, chemicals and grit are pumped into the shale thousands of feet below the ground, cracking the rock open, and releasing natural gas back up through the well.

Environmentalists say if the drill piping isn't properly installed or cracks for other reasons, all the chemicals used in the process can seep into the water supply. There's plenty of debate over exactly how often that has happened, but Robison says the risks are real.

"We privatize the profits, and you socialize the problems," he says. "When we get into this type of industry, and if there's an event where there's a spill, a spill does not respect property lines, doesn't respect state borders, doesn't respect what we value, we have to make sure that we have the proper regulatory oversight, and conditions in place for that type of development."

Robison says he's a realist, and believes banning shale gas drilling forever isn't truly an option.

"If it is a resource, we will develop it," he says. "Whether we develop it in the next 3 years or the next 30, we will develop it.

Robison says he's okay with that, as long as the work is done to make sure things are done safely. And believe it or not, Joyce Bishoff says she's not in a terrible rush for shale drilling to begin anyway.

"We don't care if it takes some time, we just want to see it done objectively," she says. "A moratorium is just the wrong thing, a legal moratorium that you then have to legally undo is just the wrong way to go about things."

Governor O'Malley's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission is scheduled to deliver its final report on the environmental and economic impacts of allowing fracking in Maryland in August of next year. Both Robison and the Bishoffs say they're anxiously awaiting the commission's findings, just don't expect them to wait quietly -- Eric and Billy both make regular trips to Annapolis to share their views with state legislators.

[Music: "Energy Song" by Xavier Rudd from Food in the Belly]

Photos: Garrett County Fracking


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