When I heard that Maryland’s Senate voted 45-2 on Monday night to ban fracking for two and half years, I almost fell off my chair. This bill didn’t suffer the usual fracking bill death in the Senate. Even Republicans from Western Maryland voted in favor. What happened? Taking a peek into the series of events that surrounded the fracking ban gives hope that political compromise can happen and that everyday citizens play a part in our country’s energy policy. The House passed the Senate’s version 102-34 with another veto-proof vote. The next question is: Will Hogan sign it?
The big gas boom!
You know all about fracking, right? The controversial natural gas drilling that’s linked to earthquakes in Oklahoma. New York state just banned the whole practice. Just this morning, it was linked to rising levels of Radon in Pennsylvania homes.
Since 2006, nearly 100,000 fracked wells have been drilled in mostly Texas, Louisiana, Colorado, W. Virginia and Pennsylvania to access natural gas deep in shale rock. To get to the gas, a few million gallons of fresh water and chemicals are shot down a mile or so into each well, fracturing the shale which releases bubbles of natural gas. The U.S. energy sector has shifted to fracking for natural gas and oil, and the technology-intensive drilling generates billions of dollars. The U.S. is now the world’s no.1 natural gas producer. We have so much low-priced natural gas, that gas export facilities, like Maryland’s-own Cove Point, are being built to export our fracked gas to higher-priced markets in Asia.
Since fracking is unregulated at the federal level (a long story on its own,) regulating fracking is a state-run affair. Fracking’s list of problems is extensive: wide-spread toxic air pollution, drinking water contamination, serious health issues, industrialization of rural areas, system-wide methane leakage (global warming’s coffin nail?) and the permanent loss of billions of gallons of fresh water.
During his tenure, Governor O’Malley placed a moratorium on fracking. Though 125,000 acres in Maryland had been leased to gas drillers (most leases expired), no fracking wells have been drilled in Western Maryland’s sliver of shale gas fields. One of O’Malley’s parting gifts was to approve fracking and offer a set of updated regulations that would be the most stringent in the country. Add the federally-approved Cove Point export plant and a newly elected Republican-pro-fracking governor, and, as we wrote in November 2014, Maryland was poised to frack.
So, what happened in 11 short weeks?
Western Maryland businesses got in the fight
For the past four years, green groups, health professionals and citizens have been beating the no-fracking drum. Western Maryland’s farming sector supports fracking, but the business community had been fairly quiet. With Hogan’s election, Allegany and Garrett County businesses realized fracking was imminent and they began to examine fracking more closely.
Western Maryland’s primary “product,” if you will, is its unspoiled natural landscape. Being just a short drive from DC, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, many people flock to places like Deep Creek Lake to vacation in their large second homes and enjoy boating and fishing. More than two-thirds of the tax base in these counties comes from tourism, outdoor activities and vacation home property taxes.
As this local video points out, photos of kayakers gliding past smelly fracking wells won’t sell Western Maryland. In March 2015, over 120 local businesses sent a formal letter to Annapolis opposing fracking. Businesses from Brenda’s Pizzeria to Railey Mountain Lake Vacations, the area’s largest vacation rental agency, oppose fracking because visitors “literally make our businesses possible,” as Paul Roberts passionately told guests at a recent Baltimore Green Works fracking talk. “Western Maryland needs all Marylanders to make their voices heard on fracking.” And did they ever, even on the radio.” Roberts, a vocal fracking critic, and member of O’Malley’s fracking commission, owns Deep Creek Cellars.
Senator Carter Conway’s phone never stopped ringing
Led by the non-profit Food and Water Watch, along with the heavy-hitter green non-profits Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Citizen Shale and Sierra Club, more than 100 organizations banded together creating Don’t Frack Maryland. This grassroots effort urged many more Maryland residents, businesses, and even celebrities, to march, write, email, and call Annapolis to express their support of the fracking ban.
Baltimore City-based Senator Joan Carter Conway took notice. She heads the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, the fracking graveyard where most bills died in previous years. During last week’s public hearing, she stated that she was astounded by her district’s opposition and that her phone hadn’t stopped ringing for weeks. Maybe the squeaky wheel gets oiled after all?
The final bill that Carter Conway crafted was a compromise. Both sides were sort of happy, and also sort of bummed. Fracking opponents were hoping for a longer ban and further studies, but they got a fracking “pause” for 30 months. Pro-gas groups were hoping for permits to start rolling in after Hogan’s win, but they got a bill that opened the door for “Hoganesque” fracking regulations. Updated regulations are expected as early as June 2015.
What’s next for fracking in Maryland?
Until October 2017, no fracking permits will be issued by the Maryland Department of the Environment in Western Maryland – if Governor Hogan signs this bill into law.
Another fracking regulation has been introduced in the Senate and is awaiting a vote. Senator Zirkin has sponsored an unprecedented liability bill requiring oil and gas companies to be held liable if fracking damages residents or property.
We’ll see and we’ll keep you updated.