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Maryland House, Senate Pass Fracking Bills

Sen. Bobby Zirkin sponsored legislation that would set tough liability standards on hydraulic fracturing in Maryland.
Christopher Connelly/WYPR
Sen. Bobby Zirkin sponsored legislation that would set tough liability standards on hydraulic fracturing in Maryland.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin sponsored legislation that would set tough liability standards on hydraulic fracturing in Maryland.
Credit Christopher Connelly/WYPR
Sen. Bobby Zirkin sponsored legislation that would set tough liability standards on hydraulic fracturing in Maryland.

The two chambers of the Maryland General Assembly took up and passed separate bills related to the controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, orfracking, on Tuesday. One would put a moratorium onfrackinguntil a panel can study the potential public health consequences. The other sets strict standards to hold gas drillers accountable if those consequences occur.

The bill the House took up offers wait and see approach, enacting a three-year moratorium while a task force reviews data from states across the nation where fracking is already taking place to determine if the public health risks are too great. Proponents of the bill argue that a previous study panel, conducted during a de-facto moratorium over the past four years, inadequately evaluated potential health risks.  

But Del. Wendell Beitzel, a Garrett County Republican and one of just two delegates who represent Maryland districts that have Marcellus Shale gas that could befracked, argued that his constituents overwhelmingly supportfracking, but have been blocked from the financial fruits of the gas under their land.

“We keep getting body slammed time and time again by your overwhelming numbers and your disdain for our so-called misguided energy policy,” Beitzel said.

Beitzel said fracking will bring thousands of much-needed jobs and tens of millions of dollars to Western Maryland. Alleghany County delegate Jason Buckel said the bill sends a message to drillers not to invest in Maryland. “Why would they come here when they can go to other states that have a more reasonable, more practical approach to these types of issues?” he asked the chamber.

The previous panel, the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative, was commissioned by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley. The final report from the group, put together after years of study, determined fracking could be done safely in the state with proper regulations. Regulations based on its findings are still pending.

But proponents of a moratorium argue that the panel only included input from public health officials in the last year of the nearly four year study period. They argue that horizontal hydraulic fracturing technology is still relatively new, and public health science is just now becoming available.

“If we get this wrong, it has far greater consequences: It’s the health, safety and welfare of our citizens of this state,” said Del. Derrick Davis, D-Prince George’s County.

In the end, 90 democrats and three Republicans approved the moratorium.  But it’s not clear whether the House bill will go much farther. Its next stop is in the Senate’s environmental committee, which has been inhospitable to efforts to ban or delay hydraulic fracturing in previous years. That committee’s chairman, Sen. Joan Carter Conway, says she’ll keep an open mind on the House bill, but said she’s not enthusiastic about efforts to preemptively stop fracking, especially with any possible fracking activity years away.

"We don’t know what will happen in Maryland. Do we know what happened in Pennsylvania? Yes. Do we know what happened in Texas? Yes. But this is not Pennsylvania or Texas,” Conway said. “We can always prohibit it if we think it’s a bad thing.”

Conway didn’t favor but abstained from voting on the fracking bill that her own chamber approved. That bill focuses on liability if future fracking activity causes problems. It would make it easier for people to win lawsuits if their health or land is damaged by fracking. It also requires gas drillers to carry more insurance and makes the chemical formula of fracking fluids easier to get – something gas companies have resisted across the country.

“If these folks want to come and make money on the backs of citizens of the state, we sure as hell shouldn’t let our citizens be unprotected from the damages that they cause,” said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, who sponsored the bill.

Zirkin said the bill is just the first step toward protecting citizens from the inevitable risks of hydraulic fracturing. “What the law on the back end can do is let people know there’s a price for not doing it safely,” Zirkin said. “But quite frankly there need to be front-end regulations.”

Opponents of the strict liability standards argue that it's just another attempt to ward off gas drillers from operating in the state.

Still, Zirkin’s bill may face a warmer reception when it heads over to the House. The chairmen of both committees it could go wind up in cast their votes for the House’s wait-and-see approach to fracking.

If either of those bills pass the entire General Assembly, they’ll end up on the desk of Governor Larry Hogan. A Hogan spokeswoman said in a statement that the governor is reviewing the legislation, but he favors fracking in Maryland so long as it can be done in an "environmentally safe way" 

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Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.