Maryland Senate gives final approval to fracking ban

With governor’s signature likely, state to become second in nation with natural gas reserves to prohibit drilling practice.

(Photo by Thomas Meyer)

Maryland’s Senate gave final approval Monday night to a permanent ban on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, making the state the second in the nation with known gas reserves to ban the practice.

By a vote of 35 to 10, the Senate sent the bill banning “fracking,” as it’s commonly called, to Gov. Larry Hogan, who recently indicated he supports it. The House earlier had given its overwhelming approval to the same measure.

The bill’s passage makes Maryland the second state in the nation with proven natural gas reserves to ban fracking. New York banned it by executive order; Vermont has banned it by legislation, but lacks known gas reserves.

The vote all but ends a six-year debate about whether to permit fracking in western Maryland, which sits atop a gas-rich Marcellus Shale deposit that stretches from New York into North Carolina.

Though the gas industry has touted the process as safer than other extraction methods, fracking has led to drinking water contamination, hazardous spills, and forest fragmentation in nearby states that have allowed it, such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In Maryland, only the mountainous western counties of Allegany and Garrett contain the shale reserves; residents there were split over whether to allow the practice, though area politicians wanted it.

Environmentalists, purveyors of tourism, and many rural residents hailed the vote.

(Photo by Kai Hagen)

“All of Maryland has united to protect its residents and future residents from the harmful impacts of fracking,” anti-fracking activists Jackie and Dale Sams of Allegany County said in a statement.

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, called it “a win for Marylanders and for citizens nationwide as we move away from violent fossil fuels and toward sustainable wind and solar power.”

But Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, called the General Assembly’s action “misguided” and asserted that it hurts the state’s economy and its environment.

“Maryland depends year-round on natural gas that is safely produced in neighboring states,” Cobbs said, noting that the nation’s increased use of natural gas has helped reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions to a 25-year low.

Fracking involves drilling horizontally deep underground, then injecting liquid at high pressure into rocks to force fissures and extract oil or gas. There has been a moratorium in effect the past two years, which is scheduled to expire Oct. 1.

Proponents argued that extracting the gas in Marcellus Shale deposits could bring jobs and boost the economically depressed region. But critics have pointed to problems with fracking in neighboring states, including spills and contaminated wells, and to studies finding health risks associated with the practice. Others have warned a drilling boom could kill western Maryland’s growing tourism and outdoor recreation businesses, among them some of the best trout fishing in the region, the Wisp ski resort, and Deep Creek Lake.

The energy industry, which once leased rights to drill over much of Garrett County, had at one time been pressing to drill in Western Maryland. But a bonanza of wells drilled elsewhere in the country has yielded a glut in natural gas, driving down prices and profits, reducing incentives for the industry to prospect for new reserves. Most of the leases signed years ago have been allowed to lapse, which led proponents and opponents alike to acknowledge there likely wouldn’t be a rush to drill in Maryland even if permitted.

After several years of debate and study, Maryland lawmakers imposed a temporary moratorium in 2015 to give state regulators time to draw up regulatory safeguards for the practice. Last year, the Department of the Environment proposed what Hogan contended are the toughest fracking regulations of any state in the country, which he argued would have made it “virtually impossible” for any drilling to be permitted.

But a joint House-Senate committee found the rules not stringent enough, and put a hold on them. Though that hold was only temporary, and the administration could have pressed ahead with imposing regulations, Hogan cited the legislature’s failure to act on those rules as a factor in his surprise about-face recently from supporting fracking to endorsing a permanent fracking ban.

(Photo by Kai Hagen)

While the debate focused on fracking’s impact on Western Maryland, it became a statewide issue, in part because of the spreading impact of the gas drilling boom in neighboring states. Dominion, the Richmond-based energy company, is in the process of developing a plant to liquefy natural gas at Cove Point and export it to Asia from a terminal off Calvert County in the Chesapeake Bay. That project also sparked fierce debate as well as lawsuits, though state and federal officials ultimately approved it.

This column was originally published here.

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