By Lyle Kendrick, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS – While most eyes in the statewide fracking debate are on the Marcellus Shale region in Western Maryland, a smaller gas basin underneath Southern Maryland is drawing a Texas-based energy company’s attention.
The Shore Exploration and Production Corp. has leased 84,000 acres of land in Virginia in relation to the Taylorsville basin, but has not begun drilling.
The basin, though mostly in Virginia, runs in Maryland through most of Charles County and also goes into St. Mary’s, Prince George’s, Calvert and Anne Arundel Counties.
Shore Exploration and Production once leased Maryland land with Exxon and Texaco during the late 1980s to study the basin, but were unable to use it for extracting natural gas, said Stan Sherrill, Shore’s president.
Energy companies now have much stronger technology options than in 1990, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which is also called fracking, he said.
However, Shore will not currently lease in Maryland because of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s order that prevents the Maryland Department of the Environment from approving drilling permits until the end of a scientific study examining fracking.
“Until they’re willing to change their moratorium, it’s a moot question,” Sherrill said.
The study ordered by O’Malley is planned to be finalized later this year.
Delegate Shane Robinson, D-Montgomery, said a problem with small basins like Taylorsville is that they have not been as widely publicized as Marcellus and that residents might not be aware that fracking could directly impact them if legalized in Maryland.
“It’s not just a Western Maryland issue,” he said.
Though fracking is not legal in the state, the Taylorsville basin goes under the Potomac River, which separates Maryland and Virginia.
If a spill occurred on the Virginia side of the Potomac River or another shared body of water, both sides of the water could be impacted, said Jim Coleman, a research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey.
Coleman said he sees the biggest risks in a fracking operations like the potential ones in Virginia to be surface-level accidents that happen with fracking chemicals and flowback water.
Factors outside of the gas operation, like low-weight bridges, have also caused fracking-related accidents in other states, he said.
“To me, the biggest problems in Pennsylvania have been to do with the road infrastructure,” he said.
Coleman worked on a 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey that assessed several basins in the eastern United States, including the Taylorsville basin and four others in Maryland that are not a part of the Marcellus Shale region.
The study estimated that there are 1.064 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Taylorsville basin, a small number compared to the Marcellus Shale basin which has an estimated 84 trillion cubic feet of gas.
Drew Cobbs, executive director for the Maryland Petroleum Council, said the Taylorsville basin will likely not cause significant economic ripples in the industry because it is so small and the geology of the much larger Marcellus Shale has already proven to be valuable.
He said a less-explored basin like Taylorsville is much riskier and an exploratory drilling can cost $5 to $8 million a well.
Despite the size difference, the oil and gas industry could take note of smaller basins like Taylorsville because shale gas is a finite resource and the Marcellus basin won’t last forever, Robinson said.
The 2012 study also showed that a natural gas basin called the Culpeper basin runs under part of Montgomery County, Robinson’s county.
Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles, said while he has not heard concerns from his constituents, he said that if fracking can be done in an environmentally responsible way, it could create economic opportunities in Charles County and significantly increase some property values.
“It brings the issue a lot closer to home,” he said.
Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said natural gas being produced in the United States has led to a smaller trade deficit and created tens of thousands of jobs in the Pennsylvania region.
He said he could see these kinds of benefits happening at the local level with a smaller basin like Taylorsville.
Some organizations that want an extension the governor’s fracking moratorium said an energy company’s interest in the Taylorsville basin shows that fracking is an immediate issue.
“It should be a signal to the Marylanders living in the rest of the Taylorsville basin that this is very real and drilling like this could come to Maryland in the near future,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
He said fracking’s potential negative impacts include contaminated drinking water and increased truck traffic.
While the Shore Exploration and Production Corp. is leasing land in the Virginia part of the Taylorsville basin, the company still does not have a major partner like they previously did with Texaco and Exxon, Sherrill said.
He said the company’s timetable depends on when it can attract partners so that it can begin drilling wells.