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Battle Over Fracking in Maryland Heats Up With Protest March and Hearings

Tom Pelton

Last week, more than a thousand activists marched down Main Street in Annapolis, then paraded in a circle around the State House, chanting, cheering, and waving signs reading “Don’t Frack Maryland.” 

Even bagpipers joined the protest, with their wailing adding a militant sound to the protesters, two of whom wore skull masks and costumes that made them look like devilish oil rigs.

The people were voicing their support for a bill that would have Maryland lawmakers permanently ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the state.

Two years ago, Maryland imposed a temporary moratorium on the high-pressure injection of water and chemicals into shale rock to release gas. But that moratorium will expire in October, and fracking and drilling will likely begin in Western Maryland after that if lawmakers do not act this spring.

“I’m alarmed that they are even considering allowing fracking in Maryland, given what we’ve seen in states like Pennsylvania,” said one of the marchers, Valeska Popula. “I am concerned about the effects on people’s access to their well water, not to mention all of the health impacts that are clearly being documented in other states around fracking.”

Recent studies by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health have documented higher rates of asthma attacks and premature births for people who live near fracking sites in Pennsylvania.

Many Western Maryland residents fear that the heavy truck traffic, industrial noises and chemical spills from fracking and drilling will drive away the wilderness tourists who are the backbone of the local economy.

Paul Roberts is a wine maker and director of Citizen Shale, which helped to organize the march with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch and others.

“There is simply no evidence anywhere in the world, that fracking can be done without harming humans and the environment,” Roberts said. “And we are hopeful that Maryland’s legislators will finally do the right thing and prevent this from ever happening in our state.”

Inside the General Assembly last week, the scene was very different. 

During a hearing on Senate Bill 740, which would ban fracking, Eric Milito, a director at the American Petroleum Institute, was among those who testified against the prohibition. He argued that drilling not only creates jobs but also helps the environment, because natural gas displaces a dirtier fuel, coal.

“The transition to natural gas in our power sector has given us these huge health benefits because our air is cleaner,” Milito said. “And that’s because hydraulic fracturing has made natural gas so much more affordable and abundant that our utilities are moving more and more to that, and it’s driving down emissions of particulate matter, sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides.”   

The bill to ban fracking, sponsored by Senator Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat from Baltimore, has 23 senators listed as co-sponsors. Only one more vote would be needed for passage.  Similar legislation in the House boasts 67 co-sponsors.

A major obstacle to the bill’s passage, however, is Senator Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee that is considering Zirkin’s bill. Conway is pushing alternative legislation (Senate Bill 862) that is backed by 24 senators – including many Republicans and the Senate President, Democrat Thomas “Mike” Miller.  This bill would allow voters in local counties to decide for themselves if they want fracking by casting ballots in a referendum next year. 

Senator Conway warned that Republican Governor Larry Hogan would likely veto a ban on fracking, which would then require the votes of 60 percent of lawmakers for an override.

“Do you really believe that if we pass the ban – let’s say we pass it tomorrow – that that ban won’t be vetoed?” Conway asked Zirkin.  “You need 29 votes.”

In response to a question about whether Hogan would veto a ban on fracking, his administration released a statement suggesting that Hogan’s Department of the Environment has crafted regulations that would allow fracking to proceed safely.

"As required by the law passed by the General Assembly, the Maryland Department of the Environment has developed regulations for hydraulic fracturing,” said MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles. “These proposed regulations are the most protective and comprehensive in the country. They represent a platinum package. If hydraulic fracturing ever comes to western Maryland, these rigorous regulations will be in place beforehand to help ensure safe and responsible energy development."

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.