With time ticking away and still no money to pay for scientific studies of hydraulic fracturing, a Montgomery County lawmaker plans to ensure natural gas companies don’t run out the clock on a drilling moratorium ordered by Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Without money to pay for best practice and safety studies mandated by O’Malley in 2011, a state panel charged with deciding the controversial natural gas drilling technique’s safety has failed to make significant progress.
An attempt to impose a study-funding, per-acre fee on natural gas companies that have leased farmland in Western Maryland, where natural gas encased in the Marcellus Shale formation runs one mile beneath the surface, failed in the 2012 legislative session. A report on the study’s results is due in August 2014 under O’Malley’s executive order.
Del. Heather R. Mizeur, D-Montgomery, said Friday she will sponsor legislation in the 2013 General Assembly that would prevent any drilling from happening until the study requirements of the governor’s executive order are fulfilled.
“What we’re doing is taking a step back and saying the policy of the state of Maryland needs to be incredibly clear,” Mizeur said. “There will be no drilling in the state of Maryland until there are conclusive studies.”
Mizeur, who says she is skeptical the controversial drilling technique can be done safely, plans to announce the legislation and the start of an advocacy campaign at a news conference Wednesday in Federal Hill Park, alongside environmental advocacy group Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
The bill would keep the governor’s moratorium on hydraulic fracturing — also called fracking — in place at least until a study is completed. The legislation would authorize — but not require — the Maryland Department of the Environment and Department of Natural Resources to set and collect a fee to pay for the study.
Natural gas companies want to use the drilling technique to extract natural gas from deep below the feet of Allegany and Garrett County residents. Maryland has just 1 percent of known Marcellus Shale formations.
Proponents of drilling, including Del. Wendell R. Beitzel, a Garrett County Republican, say that fracking would bring jobs and positive development to a struggling Western Maryland economy.
Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council and an Annapolis lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, said the trade organization would lobby against Mizeur’s legislation.
“We’ll obviously oppose a moratorium bill,” Cobbs said. “I think Del. Mizeur is clearly an opponent of developing Marcellus Shale. It’s just another effort to stall.”
Companies have balked in recent legislative sessions at being forced to pay a proposed per-acre fee to pay for studies required by the governor. Successful lobbying by the American Petroleum Institute on behalf of those companies has stopped fee legislation, sponsored by Mizeur, in the Senate.
A final report by the Marcellus Shale Safe-Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, of which Mizeur is a member, is not due until August 2014, just months before O’Malley’s term as governor will end in December.
O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said no one in the governor’s office had seen Mizeur’s bill, “but looked forward to discussing it with the delegate.”
Mizeur said she fears that gas companies are attempting to wait out the governor’s moratorium “and get a green light to drill anyway.
“That’s not going to happen,” she said. “If we don’t have the studies in place, the answer is there’s no drilling.”
But Beitzel said Mizeur’s bill was “a big waste of legislative time.
“What’s gone on so far has probably pushed the companies out of the state,” Beitzel said. “It’ll be years and years and years before gas companies [drill in] Maryland. I think Western Maryland … has just been really [mistreated] by our state government and our legislators.”
Depending on the study results, the moratorium and fee bill states that the General Assembly would have the authority to allow drilling, impose an outright ban or seek some additional information on the process. If drilling is approved, a regulatory framework would then have to be set.
Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the legislature needed to get involved in order for the Marcellus Shale Safe-Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission to do its job.
“The commission is not advancing in its work because of this [fee] issue,” Tidwell said. “And, therefore, the commission needs the dedicated assistance of legislation.”
Fracking has been linked to flammable drinking water and earthquakes in other states, including Pennsylvania. It has also been connected to global warming, as methane gas is released into the atmosphere in the course of drilling.