Maryland Senate, House Pass Two-Year Fracking Ban

The bill, passed with veto-proof majorities in both chambers, will head to Gov. Hogan. His position on it is unknown.

Maryland State Senator Karen Montgomery attends an anti-fracking demonstration in March 2015. The state may soon ban the controversial oil and gas production method for two years. Credit: chesapeakeclimate, flickr

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Update: The Maryland house passed the two-year moratorium bill on Friday, Apr. 10, by a vote of 102-34, a veto-proof margin.

A Maryland bill calling for a two-year fracking moratorium in the state is expected to land on Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk in the coming days.

The state Senate voted in favor of the bill 45-2 Monday evening. Now the measure—which requires the state to adopt new fracking rules by Oct. 1, 2016, and prohibit fracking permits until October 2017—heads to a vote in the House. The governor’s position on the bill is unknown, but the Senate passed the bill with a veto-proof majority and there’s a good chance the House will, too.

If Maryland passes this bill, it will become the first state to temporarily ban fracking twice. The move would also underscore the growing pushback against fracking nationwide.

Last December, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in his state. His decision was based on a state-sponsored study that found unacceptable human health, environmental and climate change risks associated with fracking. Dozens of towns and counties across the country have likewise passed local bans.

Although hailed by environmentalists and lawmakers for delaying the controversial energy extraction process in the state, the bill falls short of the expectations of many legislators. An earlier version of the bill that passed in the House with overwhelming support called for a three-year ban and a study on fracking’s public health risks. The Senate bill calls for no such study.

Sen. Karen Montgomery, a Democrat from Montgomery County and supporter of the bill, said she is pleased something passed but “did not like the fact that we didn’t pay enough attention to possible health effects” of fracking.  

Montgomery added that a senator from western Maryland, where the state’s potential oil-and-gas reserves are located, helped get the measure passed. Republican Sen. George Edwards has been a “vigorous” opponent of bills restricting fracking, according to Montgomery, and yet he’s the “one who broke the gridlock and spoke on the Senate floor and said he could find this bill acceptable.” Edwards voted for the bill, and that sends a signal to representatives from that same region, she said.

Bill Will Pass ‘Imminently’

In 2011, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley mandated a three-part study evaluating the economic and environmental impacts of fracking, and banned the extraction technique until the investigation was completed.

The final December 2014 report concluded that drilling could create more than 3,000 new jobs and millions in tax revenue. But it also said energy development has the “potential to harm public, health, the environmental and natural resources”—though “best practices” could reduce those risks.

At the end of his term, O’Malley came out in support of fracking and his administration pushed through 23 pages of fracking rules, still pending regulatory approval.

The new bill would give the state legislature time to update those rules and propose new ones. The House has until April 13, the end of the legislative session, to vote on the measure.

If the bill passes both houses with a veto-proof majority, the governor has three choices: He can sign the bill into law, do nothing or veto it. If the governor chooses to do nothing for 30 days, the bill would automatically go into effect. Vetoing the bill would delay the measure’s onset. That’s because lawmakers would have to revote on the issue in either an emergency session this year or wait until the 2016 session.

Gov. Hogan, a Republican, has not come out with a position on this issue yet, according to spokeswoman Shareese Churchill of the governor’s office. He previously called Maryland’s untapped gas a “gold mine,” and said he would “want to make sure that [fracking] is done in an environmentally sensitive way, and that we take every precaution possible.”

Rep. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat, expressed optimism that the House will pass the bill “imminently.” He added, “This is obviously not the end of this debate, as we are now guaranteed to be revisiting fracking in just a couple of years.”

Maryland’s two western-most counties—Garrett and Allegany— overlie the Marcellus Shale, the same bedrock formation that has yielded oil-and-gas finds in the neighboring states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Geologists don’t know exactly the extent of the reserves underneath Maryland. Drillers have been eyeing the area since 2006; however, several of the operators that initially pursued leases in the state have since abandoned them due to regulatory uncertainty.