Photo by Thomas Meyer, via Food and Water Watch Maryland/Facebook

State Sen. Bobby Zirkin today kicked off a widely anticipated legislative battle in the Maryland General Assembly over the issue of fracking.

Zirkin, a Democrat from Baltimore County, introduced a bill this morning that would make it permanently illegal to drill into the ground in Maryland for the purpose of extracting natural gas, a practice known technically as “hydraulic fracturing” or, more colloquially, “fracking.” Maryland currently has a two-year moratorium on the controversial practice that is set to expire in October.

Governor Hogan’s administration supports updating the state’s policies and ending the moratorium to draw on a new revenue and energy source. The Maryland Department of the Environment’s draft plan attempts to account for study-back health risks associated with fracking that can result from water contamination by banning drilling near watersheds and private wells, requiring steel casings around drilling wells and mandating that utility companies replace any contaminated water nearby. The regulations would permit fracking in certain places, and closer to residential areas than was allowed before the current moratorium took effect in 2015.

In a statement, Zirkin referenced studies indicating fracking can have devastating public health effects. “This bill is a strong stance against fracking because we are one Maryland and the protection of our citizens is paramount,” he said.

Twenty-two Senate colleagues co-sponsored Zirkin’s bill, and more than 100 groups from Maryland and the surrounding region signed a joint letter endorsing the continued ban.

“The risks of fracking are simply too high, and the benefits are too concentrated within a gas industry that is located mostly out-of-state,” read the letter. “Counties and municipalities across Maryland have already banned it, and multiple polls show that a majority of residents statewide and in Western Maryland oppose fracking.”

Baltimore City is one of those municipalities that has backed a local fracking ban, even if it’s only symbolic since there are few or no natural gas reserves beneath the city concrete. In reality, most of the land that could be drilled into is in Western Maryland in areas that sit atop the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that runs from New York to Virginia.

Some residents of Western Maryland have said they are already experiencing environmental effects, including water contamination, from fracking happening across state lines in Pennsylvania. Three in five Marylanders oppose fracking, according to a September 2016 poll from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland.

Activists gathered on Wednesday in Annapolis to protest in favor of a full ban on fracking directly before Hogan’s annual State of the State address.

Hogan’s administration in November published draft regulations that it said, “will ensure that any exploration and production of oil and gas is conducted in a manner protective of public health, safety, the environment, and natural resources.”

After a 30-day public comment period, the General Assembly’s Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review committee, which reviews all proposed state regulation changes, sent the Maryland Department of the Environment a letter asking it to delay adopting any new rules while the committee studies them further.

That hold expires at the end of February, after which the regulations can take effect, said Food and Water Watch Maryland policy advocate Mitch Jones in an interview. The state could then begin offering preliminary permits to companies, though they wouldn’t be able to drill until at least Oct. 1, when the moratorium ends.

All of this would be for naught if the proposed fracking ban is passed in both houses and signed by Gov. Hogan later this year.

Hogan’s office hasn’t returned a message requesting comment on Sen. Zirkin’s proposed ban.

Jones said a cross-filed bill will be introduced in the House of Delegates next week. State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, will determine a date for the first hearing on Zirkin’s bill, he said.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...