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City Council supports moratorium on fracking

ANNAPOLIS — The debate over fracking had already moved from the farmland of Western Maryland to the State House. Now it has gotten the attention of the Baltimore City Council.

The council this week unanimously agreed to support state legislation that would place a moratorium on fracking, the common term for hydraulic fracturing.

“The City Council is taking up this issue because it’s clear that fracking can seriously impact not only the physical environment, but the health of entire communities,” Councilman Bill Henry said. “We want to make sure that when the General Assembly makes their ultimate decision about fracking’s future in Maryland, it won’t be because they’ve been rushed, but because they have been fully informed about all of the potential risks.”

Lobbying for the endorsement of city lawmakers represents a new wrinkle in the strategy of state lawmakers and environmentalists who are opposed to the controversial natural gas drilling technique, which would be used in the far reaches of Western Maryland.

The bill, expected to be introduced in the House of Delegates Thursday, had been promised since last fall by Del. Heather R. Mizeur, D-Montgomery, a member of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission. Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore, is lead sponsor of the same bill in the Senate.

“The council resolution proves once more that Marylanders across the state support further studies of fracking before we decide how to proceed,” Mizeur said. “The decision to drill brings potential long-term economic, environmental and health factors for all our communities and generations to come. I applaud the Baltimore City Council for their unanimous endorsement of a smart, thoughtful path ahead.”

A de facto fracking moratorium has been in place since August 2011, when O’Malley signed an executive order that called for best practice and safety studies. But O’Malley did not set aside any money to pay for scientific studies until January, when he included $1.5 million in his $37.3 billion budget proposal to pay for baseline data collection and safety studies.

Previously, there had been calls for a moratorium out of fear that natural gas companies would simply run out the clock on O’Malley’s executive order and start drilling anyway in the fall of 2014 — without any studies.

Now those studies have been funded, Mizeur and others say the moratorium is still necessary to ensure natural gas companies don’t attempt to drill into rock-encased gas deposits known as Marcellus Shale, which run a mile below much of Garrett and portions of Allegany counties, before they’re completed.

The bill would prevent drilling permits from being issued until studies are completed and the legislature decides whether further study is needed, new regulations should be drafted or the practice should be banned altogether.

Environmental groups opposed to fracking, including Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Environment Maryland, have said the extraction method used in fracking — blasts of a mixture of water and chemicals to break the rock and release the gas — could lead to groundwater contamination. They have also said that contamination could ultimately find its way to urban areas nowhere near the wells themselves.

Henry is expected to appear with Mizeur, Zirkin and Chesapeake Climate Action Network Director Mike Tidwell at a press conference Thursday afternoon to discuss the legislation, which appears to have the support of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s.

In recent sessions of the legislature, Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, has declined to call votes for bills that would injure or delay the fracking industry, killing one bill last year that would have applied a per-acre fee on energy companies that hold leases in Western Maryland.

Now many of those companies are letting leases they agreed to with Western Maryland residents expire while the regulatory future of fracking remains uncertain. Many Democratic lawmakers want the state to focus on renewable energy, such as that generated by a proposed field of offshore wind turbines.

Conway is skeptical on the cost of wind, and high on the abundance and economic opportunity of natural gas.

“We ought to look at everything out there,” she said.