The fight to ban fracking is headed to the Maryland General Assembly.
Lawmakers and environmental activists are expected to head to Annapolis and the 2017 General Assembly session seeking to ban the controversial natural gas extraction process before a moratorium expires next fall.
“We are now standing at the edge of the cliff, so we must act,” said Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Zirkin said he will sponsor a bill to ban fracking in Maryland and that he likely will not be the only legislator to take up the cause in what is the last session before a statewide moratorium ends in October 2017.
“We have one session to do this,” Zirkin said. “If we don’t act now in this session it will be too late. It will be the height of legislative negligence to allow something that has such serious risks to the health of the public.”
Environmentalists and opponents of fracking cite what they say is mounting and definitive scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing poses serious risks to the environment, drinking water and public health.
The Maryland Department of the Environment has proposed regulations based on the work of a panel put together under former Gov. Martin O’Malley. Those rules will have a legislative hearing in late December, but the joint Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review Committee cannot prevent them from going into effect.
In October, Del. Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery County and chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, declared that a ban would pass out of his committee and chamber in the coming session.
A month removed, Barve said he will not personally sponsor the legislation but said he does expect a bill to ban fracking. There could also be other options.
“We’re talking about something very complicated,” Barve said. “I don’t want to speculate on what we do before we do it.”
Barve said he is awaiting a report being drafted by Dels. David Fraser-Hidalgo, D-Montgomery, Jay Jalisi, D-Baltimore County, and Andrew Cassilly, R-Cecil and Harford.
The work on the report has been done without large commissions or public meetings. Barve said this is similar to other research efforts he has asked of members of his committee.
“There’s this feeling you can’t have a study without a large commission that encompasses all of the stakeholders,” Barve said. “I don’t think that’s true at all.”
That report is expected soon after the session begins on January 11. Barve said he expects the House will draft legislation on the issue soon after but said that an outright ban is just one option on a spectrum.
“We could ban it,” Barve said. “We could also extend the moratorium. We could also choose to do nothing.”
Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said he expects a number of fracking-related bills to be introduced this session, including a ban as there has been for the last five or six years.
“I do think there is a little more of a concerted effort this year,” Cobbs said.
Cobbs said there are few if any leases still in effect for properties in Western Maryland. Most companies allowed their options to expire following the passage of the moratorium and because of a glut of natural gas on the market. Additionally, Maryland’s shale deposits, sometimes referred to as dry shale, are less desirable than wet shale deposits in other areas.
Companies interested in fracking in Maryland would need years to apply for permits and set up operations and would not be ready by October 2017, Cobbs said.
“It would more likely be in 2020 if a company decided it wanted to go through the regulatory and permitting process,” Cobbs said.
Protests and lobbying
A coalition of environmental groups making up Don’t Frack Maryland has increased its advocacy efforts in advance of the session, including working in jurisdictions around the state, such as Baltimore City and Frederick County, to pass resolutions supporting a statewide ban. Smaller jurisdictions, such as Frostburg, are considering or passing local measures prohibiting the use of the natural gas extraction method inside their limits.
“There is a chorus of voices demanding the state take action on this,” Zirkin said.
Baltimore County could also take up a similar resolution — a rarity in the county for that legislative body.
“We generally don’t want to be seen as interfering with other counties or the state because we don’t want them to interfere with us,” said Democratic Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who is spearheading the effort.
Almond acknowledged that there is little likelihood that fracking would ever happen in her county but said the resolution shows solidarity and is the right thing to do.
“I do think that things sometimes need to be done more regionally,” Almond said. “A resolution supporting a fracking ban in this state is a good thing to do.”
A poll commissioned by Don’t Frack Maryland released in October found 56 percent support a ban on fracking; 28 percent oppose a ban; and 16 percent are undecided. Similar support was found locally in Western Maryland.
Another part of that advocacy included a rally outside the district office of Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City and chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Any fracking ban bill will need the support of Conway’s committee. But the rally, which was intended to illicit support and praise Conway for her past environmental votes, had an unintended effect.
Conway said she was insulted by the rally and told leaders of Don’t Frack Maryland that it hurt their efforts and was not fixable.
The legislature will likely do its work on the issue without direct input of the governor.
“We don’t truthfully know what the governor’s position is, either,” Barve said.
Hogan has shown himself to be a hands-off governor when it comes to most legislative issues that are on his own wish list. Lawmakers have complained in the past that departments participate in hearings infrequently and take positions on bills even less.
“As with almost all potential legislation, the governor will review it if it reaches his desk,” said Amelia Chasse, a Hogan spokeswoman. “As required by the law passed by the Maryland General Assembly, the Maryland Department of the Environment put forward regulations that are among the strictest and most environmentally protective in the country.”
Zirkin, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, acknowledged the difficult sledding ahead for passing any ban. A fracking ban bill he sponsored in 2014 died in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Environmental activists attending that hearing watched Zirkin debate the bill with committee Chairwoman Conway.
No one testified in support.
“Do I think it’s going to be simple? No,” Zirkin said. “If you took all the high-paid lobbying power and all the money out of this, it would be simple.
And while the House of Delegates has never passed a ban and sent it to the Senate, many see the real battle shaping up in the Conway’s committee. She has repeatedly said she didn’t favor banning an industry that wasn’t operating in the state.
“They’re not fracking in this state. There is no fracking in Maryland,” Conway said. “How do we ban an industry that is not currently in this state?”
And while environmental groups and legislators believe the proposed ban will face the toughest challenge in Conway’s committee, the senator said she is surprised people would describe her as the main hurdle.
“Senator Conway has never blocked the bill,” Conway said. “I’ve never blocked the bill. The House has never sent me a ban bill to work with.”
Conway said she believes there has previously been little support in her committee and in the Senate for a ban.
“I don’t know if (a ban) gets out of committee,” Conway said. “But if it gets to the (Senate) floor, it dies there.”
Fracking is not the only environmental issue likely to come up in the 2017 session. Other likely environmental issues: