The debate over a ban on fracking in Maryland moves to the 2017 General Assembly session even as a legislative committee debates delaying proposed regulations for the controversial gas extraction process.
Members of the joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee are faced with whether to accept proposed regulations that would govern the industry as early as October. The panel cannot, however, ban the activity — something environmental advocates and other fracking opponents say is the safer option.
“No regulation scheme can make this safe,” said Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “It hasn’t been done.”
Zirkin, who is also chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, is expected to sponsor legislation to ban fracking in the state because of concerns about public health.
“The forum for this is the General Assembly and we will take action,” Zirkin said.
In the meantime, state officials are moving forward with proposed regulations.
In testimony Tuesday, Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles told lawmakers the proposed regulations are improved over recommendations made by a panel convened under former Gov. Martin O’Malley and would allow the process under strict regulations and monitoring.
“These regulations are beyond the gold standard,” Grumbles told the committee. “They’re the platinum package.”
The secretary went on to call the regulations “the most comprehensive and protective regulations throughout the country.”
Included in the proposal are requirements for companies to monitor water quality for a year before beginning drilling; a comprehensive development plan for projects; prohibitions from drilling around watersheds including Deep Creek Lake; prohibitions on disposing of wastewater through underground injection; limiting companies to drilling one well at a time; and fines for companies that fail to comply.
Heather Mizeur, a former state delegate from Montgomery County and a member of the commission that studied fracking, said she came to the issue with an open mind but now strongly opposes the drilling practice because of its environmental effects. The proposed regulations would make no difference, she said.
“I wasn’t going to start from a place of saying no, but that’s where I am now,” Mizeur said. “We spent so much time looking at this. It became abundantly clear to me that this whole notion of managed risk — that we could put regulations in place to make sure we could keep the worst stuff from happening — it’s all an illusion.”
Lawmakers on the committee Tuesday acknowledged they had few immediate options.
“If this committee doesn’t take action, we can put the regulations on hold as of Dec. 29,” said Del. Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City and co-chair of the committee. “If we don’t take action on these regulations by Dec. 29 they would be in effect unless legislation is signed into law or a veto overriden during the 90-day session.”
A legislative hold would prevent the Department of the Environment from making the regulations official until mid-February. They would take effect Oct. 1 when the current moratorium ends, barring any action by the General Assembly in the coming session.
Without legislative action, a moratorium on the process passed in 2015 will expire in October. That same bill required the governor to develop regulations that could govern fracking in the state.
A number of lawmakers have already vowed introduce legislation to ban fracking. Others proposals could extend the moratorium and impose additional, more intensive public health studies.
Some opponents said they worried about what would happen if there were no regulations and the legislature failed to pass a moratorium or ban.
“Though we will have many chances to deal with this issue in the coming session, there is no guarantee any of them will pass. So, there is a real risk that we will go into session and we will not come out with a ban, we will not come out with an extension of a moratorium,” said Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery County. “That’s not something I want to see, but it is a reality. So, if we fail to approve regulations as a state moving forward, as flawed as they may be, where are we at the end of session if we don’t pass a ban?”