Will Maryland Close Its Borders to Fracking?

A bill to ban fracking for three years passes the Maryland House by a veto-proof 94-45, and now it's up to the Senate decide.

Mar 26, 2015

Activist speaks during a demonstration against opening Maryland to fracking. Credit: Chesapeake Climate Action

Will Maryland soon close its borders to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking?

The state's House of Delegates voted 94-45 Tuesday in favor of legislation that seeks a three-year ban on fracking, the controversial practice for extracting oil-and-gas reserves.

The largely Democrat-backed measure is now under review by the Senate Committee on Education, Health and Environmental Affairs. There's no set timeline for a vote in the Senate, where it's unclear if there's enough support to pass the bill.

If this bill becomes law, "we believe it will lead to Maryland not allowing fracking" permanently, following in the footsteps of New York, said Ryanne Waters, a spokeswoman for the environmental advocacy group Food and Water Watch, which has campaigned against fracking in Maryland.

In December, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned fracking after a state study determined there is insufficient data available to conclude it would be safe. Fracking currently takes place in 22 states. Waters said that the New York decision has given the anti-fracking movement nationwide "more steam" and "more credibility."

This bill comes at a time when Maryland's fracking future is already in limbo. In early January, former Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration published a draft of the state's proposed rules for fracking, a process that involves injecting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand underground to crack open bedrock and extract fossil fuel reserves.

Those rules are the culmination of a series of studies O'Malley had mandated back in 2011 to determine the economic and environmental impacts of fracking in the state. O'Malley, a Democrat who's contemplating a presidential run, prohibited drilling until the studies were completed in 2014. O'Malley has called the strict rules a "gold standard" for the industry. The rules are not yet finalized.

Larry Hogan, a Republican, took over the governor's office in late January. Hogan has previously called fracking "an economic gold mine." Hogan's administration has given no hint whether it will approve, amend or reject the drafted rules.

Until a decision has been made, the Maryland Department of Environment is not accepting any drilling applications.

Rep. David Fraser-Hidalgo, a Democrat from Montgomery County, introduced the anti-fracking bill Feb. 9. The bill, House Bill 449, originally called for an eight-year ban on drilling; however, its language was dialed back to a three-year ban before it passed.

The bill also stipulates the creation of a 10-person panel of primarily health, science and engineering experts with no ties to the oil-and-gas industry. The panel would review scientific literature on the public health and environmental impacts of fracking and weigh in on whether it can be done safely.

The studies carried out under the O'Malley administration did not sufficiently consider public health concerns—and this new study would close the knowledge gap, according to Fraser-Hidalgo.

Fraser-Hidalgo said the overwhelming support for the bill in the House "sends a strong message to the Senate," and that there's "a good shot" the bill will pass there.

The governor's office did not respond to calls for comment on the bill.

Lisa Nissley, from the Department of Environment's office of environmental justice, wrote a letter to the House encouraging lawmakers to redirect their attention to the drafted rules at hand, rather than authorizing a new study. She also said: "The bill would interfere with the Department's ongoing efforts to establish safeguards that would allow for environmentally sound development of the state's oil and gas resources."

No representatives from the western Garrett and Allegany counties––the only two counties in the state where there are frackable reserves of natural gas––voted for the bill.

Rep. Wendell Beitzel, a Republican who is Garrett County's only representative, firmly opposes the bill. A fifth-generation resident of the county, he says there's a majority among the county's population of around 30,000 who want to allow hydraulic fracturing.

Still, Beitzel points out that the possibility of drilling in Maryland is very far off, even without the passage of this bill. If the O'Malley rules went into place tomorrow, companies would have to pay a $30,000 fee and undertake an extensive review process that could take up to two years, he said. "It's pretty clear [energy companies] recognize that Maryland's not a good place to do business," Beitzel said.

Maryland's western corner overlies 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.

Sen. Karen Montgomery, a Democrat from Montgomery County, told InsideClimate News that she is hopeful that a three-year moratorium will pass. Montgomery introduced an identical anti-fracking bill in the Senate in February; it did not come to a vote.

This week, Maryland's Senate voted in support of a different anti-fracking bill—Senate Bill 458—seeking to strictly regulate how much liability insurance a company must have before it can drill. The bill also defines fracking as "an ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous activity." This bill is headed to the House for consideration.

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