Fracking debate nears crossroads in Maryland

Lawmakers eye prohibition, or leaving it to voters to decide locality by locality.

Maryland’s “fracking” debate begins in earnest this week in Annapolis. With a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas scheduled to end Oct. 1, lawmakers are under increasing pressure to decide whether to ban the practice permanently, punt it to the voters or let drilling proceed under disputed regulations that have yet to be finalized. Emotions are running high, and legislators appear nearly evenly split.

The House Environment and Transportation Committee is scheduled Wednesday to hear a bill that would prohibit drilling for natural gas in the state using hydraulic fracturing. The committee’s chairman, Del. Kumar Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat who’s on record against fracking, has promised his panel will “act decisively” on the issue.

“Very plainly, in our view … this is the year to get it done,” said Paul Roberts, a Garrett County winemaker and board president of the anti-fracking group Citizen Shale.

The House bill prohibiting fracking has 67 sponsors, four votes short of a majority in the 141-member chamber. But House Speaker Michael Busch pledged in a meeting last month with environmental advocates to take a hard look at a ban.

Hydraulic fracturing has been on hold in Maryland since 2011, when the administration of former Gov. Martin O’Malley formed a commission to study the risks. O’Malley proposed regulations to permit fracking in the waning days of his term; he contended the rules would impose the strictest environmental protections in the nation, but critics found them lacking.

Gov. Larry Hogan, who had supported fracking during his election campaign, withdrew O’Malley’s rules for further study, and the General Assembly in 2015 formally adopted a two-year moratorium to give lawmakers a chance to review what the Hogan administration came up with before it could take effect.

Late last year, the Department of the Environment proposed new rules for fracking, which were similar in many respects to the O’Malley version, though with a few provisions stronger and others weaker. Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles asserted that the regulations would offer a “platinum” degree of safety and protection for people’s health and air and water quality. But they got panned by members of the Assembly’s Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review committee, who ticked off a series of perceived shortcomings. Grumbles told the panel he would consider revisions, and the committee leadership used its authority to delay finalization of the rules.

Banning fracking faces stiff opposition from the energy industry, from the Hogan administration and from a number of western Maryland business interests and farmers and their lawmakers. They contend that fracking has been done safely in other states where it’s allowed, and that economically depressed Garrett and Allegany counties could use the boost that gas drilling and extraction might bring.

Opponents, though, including many in western Maryland, say there’s too much at risk and too little to gain to open that door. They say evidence of public health hazards from fracking continues to mount, pointing to recent studies linking oil and gas operations to childhood leukemia. Advocates have alleged lax investigation of ground-water contamination in Pennsylvania, and state officials have reported low-magnitude earthquakes associated with fracking in one western Pennsylvania county.

A Senate committee will take up the issue next week. There, the bill that would prohibit fracking has 23 sponsors, one shy of a majority. But there’s a competing bill, which would continue the moratorium for another two years, while asking voters in the 2018 election to decide whether to permit fracking in a county by county referendum. It has 24 sponsors — a bare majority, including some Republican lawmakers and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Both sides of the debate claim to have the public in their corner. A telephone poll commissioned this winter by the industry found 51 percent of voters statewide favor development of natural gas, with support reaching 57 percent in western Maryland. But a poll released last fall by fracking opponents found just the opposite, with 2-to-1 support statewide for a ban, even in Garrett County, the place most likely to see fracking if it is permitted. A number of counties and municipalities also have adopted local fracking bans or resolutions supporting a statewide prohibition.

Even so, opponents argue that fracking should be decided by the state’s lawmakers, since it would be regulated by the state rather than local governments.

The chief sponsor of the referendum bill is Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore city Democrat who also chairs the committee hearing both bills. She and Miller have both opposed an outright prohibition, and they usually get their way. But fracking opponents say they’re confident they can peel supporters away from the referendum bill and add enough to the prohibition measure to get it passed — if Conway and Miller will let it come to a vote.

To really prevail, though, fracking opponents will likely need to win over 60 percent of the lawmakers, because Gov. Hogan can be expected to veto any ban.

Even if fracking is permitted, there’s unlikely to be any rush to drill in western Maryland. Natural gas prices remain low amid a nationwide glut, dulling the industry’s push to tap new reserves. And with prospects uncertain for nearly a decade about whether Maryland would permit fracking, leases that the industry once piled up in Garrett County have lapsed, and no new ones signed.

Opponents acknowledge that fracking is unlikely anytime soon, even if permitted, but say that’s hardly reassuring. The current glut of gas could end with the completion of export facilities now under construction in the Chesapeake Bay at Cove Point and in the Gulf of Mexico. At those facilities, gas extracted via fracking would be liquefied and shipped abroad. The expanded market could boost demand for gas, opponents say, resulting in a renewed interest in drilling, including in Maryland.

Citizen Shale’s Roberts argued that the mere prospect of fracking being allowed has already exerted a drag on western Maryland’s burgeoning tourism industry. While a state-commissioned economic analysis projected only a limited short-term employment boost in the region from fracking, Roberts said that many tourism-oriented western Maryland businesses, including his own, have held off making further investments as the debate wears on. A decision to allow fracking could be enough to drive many away even before the first well is drilled, he warned — some owners of homes in Deep Creek Lake’s resort area already have threatened to sell.

“It’s fracking that’s anti-business,” Roberts contended. “That’s the only thing that can actually take away more jobs than it can produce.”

This column was originally published here.

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