Photo by Kevin Galens – Flickr

A measure that would permanently ban fracking across Maryland has moved one step closer to fruition by escaping, thanks to a Senate committee.

The Senate Health, Education and Environment Committee voted 8-3 today in favor of a bill that would ban hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. The vote came days after Gov. Larry Hogan shocked eco-advocates and energy companies alike by backing a proposal to prohibit drilling for natural gas across the state.

Fracking has been one of the dominant and most controversial issues of the 2017 General Assembly session. Marylanders opposed to drilling have protested in their districts, marched in Annapolis and even gotten arrested to draw attention to the issue.

Opponents of fracking have cited the documented environmental and public health risks of injecting chemicals into the earth to extract oil and gas, while supporters have said it could bring a new source of energy and revenue for Maryland, as well as jobs for the western region of the state that holds most of Maryland’s natural gas reserves.

This year’s legislative session began with two major fracking-related proposals, one that would ban it outright and another that would continue the current drilling moratorium, with an option for individual jurisdictions to allow fracking by referendum. Baltimore Sen. Joan Carter Conway proposed the latter, less stringent bill, while Montgomery County Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo and Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin proposed the full ban.

Less than two weeks ago, the House of Delegates passed Fraser-Hidalgo’s bill in a 97-40, veto-precluding vote. Luckily, that comfortable majority wasn’t even needed, since Hogan decided he wouldn’t oppose the ban if it passed.

Hogan’s change of heart surprised many. Before his announcement, if the General Assembly failed to pass either Conway’s moratorium or the full ban, the state would have begun allowing drilling on Oct. 1 under since-scrapped regulatory changes requested by Hogan’s own administration last fall. In his announcement on Friday, Hogan stood with Zirkin and said he now opposes fracking.

The news generated an emotional response both in Maryland and across state lines. While environmentalists and faith leaders cheered the Republican governor’s decision, those who favored drilling in Maryland grimaced.

It also sent waves across state lines. Just today, a Pennsylvania public utility commissioner criticized Hogan for backing a ban and said natural gas opponents had launched a “jihad” on fracking.

With the Maryland governor’s backing secured, the next obstacle for the proposed ban was escaping the Senate committee that Conway chairs. Today, all but three of the committee’s 11 members – state Sens. Gail Bates, Steve Waugh and Johnny Ray Salling, specifically – voted in favor of the bill, moving it to the full Senate floor.

“With this step, we’re just one vote away from banning fracking in Maryland once and for all,” said Maryland Food and Water Watch senior organizer Thomas Meyer in a statement. “Now the full Senate needs to finish the job, and vote to protect our state from the environmental disasters and public health crises caused by the oil and gas industry.”

A full vote hasn’t yet been scheduled, but one is expected this week.

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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...