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Maryland Senate Approves Fracking Moratorium

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On Monday night, the Maryland Senate voted 45 to 2 in favor of imposing a two year moratorium on allowing any hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the state.

Two weeks earlier, the House had voted in favor of a three year ban on fracking, which is the injection of water and chemicals into shale rock formations to extract oil and gas.  It is now likely the two chambers of the legislature will reach a compromise and impose some sort of a fracking moratorium by the time the General Assembly session ends on Monday.

The big questions now are whether Republican Governor Larry Hogan will veto the restrictions by the Democratic controlled legislature.  And whether lawmakers will approve insurance requirements for drillers that some Republicans predict could scare away the industry.   

“Governor Hogan has said before that we're sitting on a wealth of clean natural gas in Western Maryland, and that we do not need years-long moratoriums to complete additional studies,” said Erin Montgomery, spokeswoman for Governor Hogan. “If hydraulic fracturing can be done in an environmentally safe way, then the Governor would want to move forward with it.”

Some elected officials who want drilling to start in Maryland view a two-year moratorium as a victory of sorts.  Why? Because it would take that long anyway to update regulations and approve permits to allow fracking (and the market for gas is down right now).  And because a two-year moratorium is weaker than the eight-year moratorium that Democrats initially proposed, and a far cry from the permanent bans on fracking imposed recently by New York state and Vermont.

Fracking and horizontal drilling have become common in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia and other states over the last decade, leading to a surge in U.S. oil and gas production and cheaper fuel prices. But fracking has not yet started in Maryland, where some residents object  to the noise, traffic, and pollution it brings.

 “When an area is setting up a fracking operation there is a huge spike in truck traffic,” said Shilpa Joshi, Maryland Campaign Coordinator for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “As a result we have a lot of benzene and carbon dioxide that goes into the environment. Then, there’s the inevitable pollution from the drilling itself. There is a spike in air pollution – with many chemicals put into the atmosphere around fracking operations, including radium, benzene, and lead.  These are known neurotoxins and known carcinogens.”

Before he left office in January, Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley proposed strict regulations that would allow some fracking but effectively ban it from most state forests and about 90 percent of Garrett County, the western Maryland jurisdiction with the most shale rock formations and natural gas drilling potential.   Governor Hogan is now expected to issue his own revised version of the regulations in January, and he could loosen up the rules.

Democratic State Senator Karen Montgomery, from Montgomery County, said Maryland should hold off on any fracking because of new evidence that injecting fracking fluids is causing a spike in earthquakes in Oklahoma.

 “When you pump in, at high pressure, some wastewater, or you are pumping in other liquids at high pressure, you are causing some slippage which can subsequently can become an earthquake,” Montgomery said. She suggested that similar tremors could potentially damage buildings in Maryland.

Far more significant for the future of fracking in Maryland than a two-year moratorium is a bill being debated by the General Assembly that would  make Maryland the first state to require drilling companies to carry $10 million insurance policies for each well they dig. The insurance would pay for the cleanup of any wastewater spills  and fix any damage to roads or homes the drillers might cause.  

But Republican state Delegate Wendell Beitzel of Western Maryland – who has no problem with a two-year-moratorium – says the cost of the insurance requirement would frighten away gas drillers -- and therefore needed money --from his part of the state.

“If that bill passes, I don’t see any companies coming into Maryland any time soon to operate,” Beitzel said.

On the other hand, advocates argue that drillers should be held financially responsible for cleaning up their mess.  If the drillers are not willing to open up their wallets  – and put money down to back up their claims that fracking is harmless – then Maryland should not be willing to open up its land to fracking.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.