Maryland’s Fracking Ban: Which Side Won?

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Don’t Frack Maryland successfully mobilized citizens, green groups and public health professionals to ban fracking in Maryland until at least October 2017. Courtesy: Chesapeake Citizens

We wondered in a recent article if Governor Hogan would sign Maryland’s two-and-half-year fracking moratorium. Surprising many, the fracking ban was overwhelmingly voted in by Maryland’s General Assembly making it veto-proof. Hogan did not sign, nor did he veto the ban. On May 29, 2015, the inaction meant the “fracking pause” quietly became law. No fracking permits will be issued by Maryland through October 1, 2017.  True to the idea of compromise, both sides won, ensuring that fracking remains a hotly contested topic.

The For Fracking Camp:

Governor Hogan is pro-fracking and he made that clear by declining to sign the legislation. This legislation was originally titled, “The Protect Our Health and Communities Moratorium Bill,” and it originally sought an 8-year fracking ban in order to study fracking’s health and safety impacts. During bipartisan negotiations, the bill was renamed “The Hydraulic Fracturing Regulations Act.”

Maryland has no fracking wells due to then-Governor O’Malley’s 2011 executive-level moratorium. O’Malley also created the Marcellus Shale Safe-Drilling Initiative Advisory to study and determine if the new gas drilling process is safe. Though several on his commission disagreed, O’Malley approved fracking with stricter proposed regulations as he left office. 

For pro-drillers, Maryland’s moratorium is a two-year rewrite of O’Malley’s fracking rules. Hogan will likely look at the distance between the water and the well. The current governor will presumably focus on the 2,000 foot setback, which is a distance considered a safe buffer between a fracking well and drinking water source. This proposed setback would be the highest in the country, and industry has balked at 2,000 feet because the area of “drillable” land shrinks considerably. Peer-reviewed research found that methane leaks into water wells located within 3,000 feet of a fracking well at rates six-times greater than when a water well was outside that radius. Maryland’s current ‘conventional’ natural gas laws date to the 1990s, and require a 1,000 foot setback.

Why would pro-fracking legislators and a Republican governor support this bill? It’s true that low gas prices have slowed the fracking boom. And, it’s true that Maryland’s current permit process can take almost two years, the same timeframe as the moratorium.  But, a key factor is that Western Maryland business owners voiced their concern about the negative impacts industrial fracking would have on the area’s tourism and vacation home sales. One little-known fact is that many of Maryland’s original fracking leases have expired. It is unclear how many properties are currently leased for gas drilling because of rollover clauses. 

The Against Fracking Camp:

DontFrackMDAfter five years of unsuccessfully working to ban fracking, environmental groups and community groups banded together in 2015 and formed Don’t Frack Maryland. Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Sierra Club, Citizen Shale, Maryland Environmental Health Network, and Food and Water Watch represent just a few of the 120+ organizations that built a no-fracking consortium to support the fracking moratorium. The alliance ran a full-scale effort to build support for this bill through letter writing, calling campaigns, email actions, rallies, and even radio advertising featuring the actor Ed Norton.

Thrilled with the moratorium, Don’t Frack Maryland partners look to the 2-year fracking pause as a time to focus on educating Marylanders about fracking’s environmental and health consequences, and also to analyze the flood of fracking studies coming online. 

Senator Karen Montgomery, the bill’s Senate sponsor said of the law, “Now we have two years to continue to compile indisputable scientific data.”

Citizen Shale, representing Western Maryland’s communities most affected by future fracking said, “We now have two years to help our Governor understand what an overwhelming majority in the General Assembly recognized this year: that fracking Maryland’s unspoiled mountain paradise will not only threaten public health and safety but will also drive away homeowners, visitors and businesses.”

During the two years, Maryland may also adopt the strategy successfully used in other states and ban fracking at local levels. This strategy did get dicey this week as both of the Texas and Oklahoma legislatures banned local bans, citing that state law trumps local laws. Wait, did Texas say it’s okay for government to interfere in local matters? You can’t make this stuff up, especially when it comes to profitable sectors like oil and gas.

One thing is certain, fracking’s future in Maryland is still an open issue with both sides ready to continue the fight.

Laurel Peltier
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