ANNAPOLIS — As lawmakers debate banning fracking or extending a moratorium on the practice, one powerful Senate committee chairwoman said the final decision may come down to politics and votes.
The debate over fracking this year comes as the state moratorium ends in October. Competing bills in the General Assembly seek to either continue that moratorium and another that would ban the practice of extracting natural gas.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City and chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said the ultimate decision on a ban versus moratorium extension will hinge on votes.
“Do you really believe that if we pass a ban tomorrow that that ban won’t be vetoed?” Conway asked Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, who is sponsoring Senate bill 740 to ban fracking in the state.
Conway, who fracking opponents say has consistently blocked a statewide ban, is sponsoring Senate Bill 862, which extends the current moratorium through 2018 and would require a referendum in which residents would vote in a year to decide if they would allow fracking in their respective jurisdictions.
Both bills were part of a hearing in Conway’s committee Tuesday.
The Maryland Department of the Environment has proposed regulations that would allow companies interested in fracking to begin applying for permits in October unless the legislature acts this session.
Industry officials say that it is unlikely that the process will begin that quickly because of market forces and the type of Marcellus shale, known as dry shale, that is in Western Maryland. Currently, the industry favors so-called wet shale.
Conway told Zirkin a moratorium is politically difficult to pass.
“Most people think you need 24 votes (to pass a bill). It’s not 24, it’s 29,” Conway said.
Typically, a bill needs 24 votes to pass the Maryland Senate. Five more votes provides a veto-proof majority that would allow for the legislature to supersede Gov. Larry Hogan should he veto a bill. Conway said the political climate is such that it is unlikely that a ban could pass.
“You show me 29 votes, and you can get anything you want,” said Conway, who also reiterated that she is not a proponent of fracking.
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.
“It’s really become a very black-and-white issue,” Zirkin said, adding: “At the end of the day I’m not sure what the big debate is about when we have serious health consequences from fracking.”
Supporters of fracking argue that technology is making the process safer and can be done without harmful effects, and they point to the economic benefits, including increased jobs and cheaper fuel.
Zirkin rejected those assertions.
“It is not safe,” Zirkin said. “It has not been done safe in any state in this country. If this becomes something where you can get the gas out of the ground without the words cancer and lymphoma being associated with it then go get it … but it don’t exist right now.”
Zirkin said a ban could always be lifted if the science shows the process is safer. A moratorium extension just kicks the issue down the road, he said.
At the end of the day, a moratorium, whether it’s 10 years or 50 years means, we have to come back,” said Zirkin. “The only difference between a ban and a moratorium is the arbitrariness of when you decide to have the fight again.”
In the end, Zirkin said he would be willing to send a ban to Hogan even if it was veto-bait.
“As for the political issues here, come what may with the governor. Let him veto a bill that bans fracking,” said Zirkin. “Go for it. Let’s have that fight. Let’s have that debate. I’m not worried about the politics. I’m worried about doing what’s right.”