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

An overwhelming majority of the members of the Maryland General Assembly’s lower house today decided the state would be better off without natural gas drilling.

In a 97-40 vote this morning, the House of Delegates approved Montgomery County Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo’s proposed permanent statewide ban on fracking. The bill is identical to another measure proposed in the upper house by Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin.

“As a longtime proponent of legislative initiatives to protect Maryland from the dangers of fracking, I commend the Maryland House of Delegates for voting in support of a fracking ban,” Fraser-Hidalgo said in a statement.

Many had expected the first bill to clear the House of Delegates, but supporters nonetheless expressed joy at clearing a margin that precludes a potential veto from Gov. Larry Hogan.

“We did, I think, expect that we would pass a ban out of the House, but I don’t think we expected we would have as big of a bipartisan majority supporting the ban,” said Mitch Jones, senior policy advocate for Food and Water Watch Maryland, in an interview.

Fracking is one of the top issues facing the state legislature in its current term, which ends in exactly one month. Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has proposed draft regulations for the Maryland Department of the Environment that would allow energy companies to begin drilling for natural gas after the current two-year moratorium expires on Oct. 1.

Of particular interest to energy firms is a section of Western Maryland that sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation. Hogan’s proposed rule changes would let companies begin excavating those resources, albeit with some proposed strengthening of barriers around wells and other hopeful protections for nearby communities.

Hogan’s office hasn’t responded to a request for comment on today’s vote.

To prevent any drilling from happening, Fraser-Hidalgo and Zirkin jointly proposed a permanent fracking ban, cross-filing identical bills in both houses of the legislature. An alternative measure proposed by Baltimore Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, would extend the current moratorium until October 2019, but allow counties to vote via referendum on whether they want to allow drilling in their jurisdictions. Environmental advocates worry the latter bill could create a patchwork of fracking-friendly zones across the state.

Faith leaders, nonprofits and elected officials from across the state have backed a permanent ban on fracking, arguing allowing companies to drill would create potential public health risks like groundwater contamination, methane pollution and seismic instability. Additionally, last Thursday, more than 1,000 people marched through Annapolis to express support for an all-out ban.

The Senate must now vote in favor Zirkin’s bill for the measure to make it to Hogan’s desk. After today’s vote of approval, those advocating for a full ban are hoping to get Sen. Conway and Senate President Miller on board. Jones, of Food and Water Watch Maryland, said a majority of senators already support Zirkin’s measure.

Conway hasn’t responded to a request for comment on today’s vote or a potential Senate vote on the ban.

“The only question now is whether or not Sen. Conway will join with the majority of her colleagues in allowing a vote in her committee,” Jones said.

If she does, he says, proponents of the ban could get a large enough majority to override any potential veto from Hogan.

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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...