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Raskin, Frosh to join in calling for fracking moratorium

A pair of Montgomery County senators are planning to join a colleague in the House of Delegates in supporting a moratorium on a controversial drilling technique used to extract natural gas.

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin and Sen. Brian E. Frosh, both Democrats, are expected to detail their plans in a phone conference hosted by nonprofit environmental group Chesapeake Climate Action Network Wednesday.

The senators declined to comment Tuesday in advance of the announcement.

Del. Heather R. Mizeur, D-Montgomery, said in September she planned to sponsor legislation in the 2013 General Assembly that would enact a statutory moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Mizeur has said she doubts that fracking, which involves drilling down a mile and then blasting a water and chemical mixture through the well to force out natural gas, can be done safely. She championed a bill in 2012 that would have imposed a per-acre fee on natural gas companies that have leased land in Western Maryland where the natural gas deposits are encased in a rock formation called Marcellus Shale.

The fee would have been used to fund scientific safety studies. The legislation passed in the House, but a vote on the bill was never held in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Frosh sponsored a Senate version of the bill.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the committee and has the power to hold a bill without calling for a vote, did not respond to a message left at her office seeking comment. After showing tepid interest in examining last year’s per-acre study bill, Conway did not call for a vote in the waning days of the legislative session. It is unclear how a moratorium bill might be handled.

Also uncertain is how involved Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, might become in fracking legislation. Environmental issues have not risen to the top of the longtime presiding officers’ priority list in recent sessions. An offshore wind energy bill also died in a Senate committee this year.

The moratorium bill comes as natural gas companies appear to be losing patience with Maryland. Companies began leasing land in Garrett and Allegany counties — the only places where the Marcellus Shale runs through Maryland — in 2006. But many of those agreements, most of them signed for five years, have been allowed to expire.

With fewer companies leasing fewer acres, a per-acre fee would seem unlikely to produce the roughly $2 million some say is needed to complete the scientific study sought by members of the Marcellus Shale Safe-Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, a panel formed through an executive order signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2011.

The executive order also enacted a moratorium on drilling, but fracking opponents are concerned that once O’Malley’s order expires in 2014, companies will start drilling before further action prohibiting the practice can be taken. O’Malley’s term as governor concludes at the end of 2014.

The governor has not publicly decided whether he would support moratorium legislation.

The issue appears primed to claim a share of the spotlight in next year’s General Assembly. Several bills are expected to be introduced that deal with the drilling practice, including one by Del. A. Shane Robinson, D-Montgomery, that seeks an outright ban on fracking.

Sen. George C. Edwards, a Western Maryland Republican, said the anti-fracking legislation felt politically motivated. He noted that O’Malley’s moratorium should be enough to appease those who have concerns about drilling, and that any legislative action should not predate recommendations of the commission the governor formed.

“You’ve got Del. Mizeur running for who knows what, you got Sen. Frosh running for attorney general,” Edwards said. “These things play well in the metropolitan area, where you have a lot of environmentalists living. I think that’s the driver.

“They can put a bill in. I’m hopeful that we can kill the bill. I mean, we have a moratorium, that’s what we have.”

The fracking debate extends well beyond Maryland, which has just 1 percent of the nation’s share of Marcellus Shale deposits. Nearby, the practice is legal in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, but a decision on hydraulic fracturing has repeatedly been put off in New York.

Even in states where fracking has been welcomed for its economic benefit, some residents harbor serious concerns.

Opponents often cite a host of environmental issues, but most frequently note the possibility of water contamination caused by drilling mistakes and well casing failures.

A host of environmental groups plan to submit a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday requesting that natural gas and oil companies be forced to report to the Toxics Release Inventory, an EPA-maintained database of chemical disposals and releases.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Tuesday that environmental groups have asked Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett to rescind a policy change that allows bureaucrats in Harrisburg, the state capital, to decide whether to notify residents of pollution caused by gas and oil drilling. Previously, local field officers would make that call.