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Critics of gas drilling seek more on how hydraulic fracturing in Maryland would affect tourism

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FROSTBURG, Md. - A Towson University study of the potential economic impact of shale gas drilling in far western Maryland fails to answer what some critics said Monday is their biggest question: How would hydraulic fracturing for natural gas affect the tourism that accounts for a large share of the economy in Garrett County, where most of the drilling would occur?

Several members of the state panel that commissioned the study, including state Delegate Heather Mizeur, asked the authors to include language in their final report next month highlighting their lack of information about the tourism impact, as well their lack of cost analysis of a potential disaster such as widespread contamination of drinking water.

"Let's just get real about what we were able to discover and, quite honestly, how much more there is that we didn't even begin to touch on that was the whole initial charge of this commission to begin with," Mizeur said. The Montgomery County Democrat made her opposition to hydraulic fracturing a part of her failed gubernatorial bid earlier this year.

Study author Daraius Irani of Towson's Regional Economic Studies Institute, said his team found a dearth of usable data about the impact of hydraulic fracturing in tourist areas. The institute produced the $150,000 study for a state commission that aims to recommend regulations this fall for safe drilling in Maryland's portion of the Marcellus shale formation.

Paul Roberts, a Garrett County winemaker who sits on the panel, said he will ask Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley to find more money for a deeper study of the tourism impact.

Tourism and vacation homes in the Deep Creek Lake area play a major role in the economy of the sparsely populated, mountainous county. About 60 per cent of the county's real-estate tax revenue comes from the lake district, according to the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce.

The Towson study found that properties within a half-mile of natural gas wells declined in value by 8 per cent to 9 per cent compared with those more than two miles away. Irani said the study presumed no drilling in the lake district, although hydraulic fracturing is a permitted use in the lake watershed. The Garrett County Board of Realtors announced on Saturday it opposes shale gas drilling in the watershed.

State Sen. George Edwards, R-Garrett, who favours gas production, said tourism is just one part of a "triangle economy" in Garrett County, with other businesses and farming holding up the other sides.

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