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As MD’s Fracking Moratorium Expires, Lawmakers Plan a Ban

Two and a half years ago, the Maryland General Assembly imposed a temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the state.

That temporary ban on fracking will expire next October. And unless state lawmakers take action to extend the restrictions in the General Assembly session that starts on January 11, the oil and gas industry, which has been fracking for a decade in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia, will move into Western Maryland.

State Senator Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat from Baltimore County, said he plans to introduce a bill to permanently outlaw fracking statewide, because there are shale rock formations with natural gas across Maryland.

“Obviously there is money to be made, but I think it’s more like fool’s gold,” Zirkin said.  “The public health, human health and environmental costs are just significant.  And so for that reason, and that reason alone, we need to put the brakes on this.”

State Delegate Kumar Barve, a Democrat from Montgomery County, is the chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee. He said lawmakers in his committee are evaluating all the evidence – including recent research by Johns Hopkins scientists led by Dr. Brian Schwartz, who found higher premature birth rates for mothers who live near fracking sites in Pennsylvania. In another experiment, Hopkins researchers led by Sara Rasmussen found that Pennsylvania residents with asthma  are up to four times more likely to suffer asthma attacks if they live near fracking sites.

“That study is very important,” said Barve.  “ It is scientific. It is peer reviewed.  It’s not some anecdotal article you read in Reader’s Digest – this is real science.”

New York state outlawed fracking in 2015.  And in Maryland, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as the towns of Friendsville and Mountain Lake Park in Western Maryland, have also banned hydraulic fracturing, which is the high pressure injection of water and chemicals into shale rock formations to extract gas or oil.

Fighting against a ban are the lawmakers from Western Maryland. They argue that their economically struggling region would benefit if farmers could get checks from gas companies by leasing out their land. Governor Larry Hogan has also spoken out in favor of natural gas production in Maryland, calling fracking an “economic gold mine.”

“We are so dependent upon fossil fuels for energy, and natural gas is one of the cleanest forms of it,” said state Del. Wendell Beitzel, who represents Garrett County.  “We have natural gas here in western Maryland that we have utilized before and I think we can continue to utilize it to support Maryland’s energy needs.”

Beitzel’s position on the issue appears to be in direct opposition to that of a majority of his district’s voters. A poll released last month found that 57 percent of Garrett County residents support a ban on fracking, compared to only 27 percent opposed. Those were slightly higher numbers than the 56 percent of 802 residents sampled statewide who said they favor a ban.

Beitzel and others dismiss the poll, because it was commissioned by the Don’t Frank Maryland campaign.  But an independent Washington Post/University of Maryland poll conducted in September found very similar results – with 60 percent of Maryland polled opposed to fracking, and only 27 percent in support.

Paul Roberts is a winemaker in Western Maryland who worries about harm to local businesses from the drilling rigs, truck traffic, noise and pollution of the oil and gas industry.

“Two thirds of the tax base in the county is supported by vacation tourism,” Robert said.  “Over half of the employment comes from vacation tourism. So people like my wife and myself – who own Deep Creek Cellars – this is something that we’ve been very aware of. We know that many people in the area are very worried about the impacts on the local economy.”

With all of this in mind, a heated debate is expected in the General Assembly, staring in January, over whether to open up Maryland to fracking …or close the door, permanently.


For a copy of the Johns Hopkins/Dr. Brian Schwartz study on fracking and premature births, visit:


For a copy of the Hopkins/Sara Rasmussen study on fracking and asthma, visit:


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.