The decision to frack or not in Maryland is finally upon us. Even though most of us don’t live in western Maryland atop the natural gas fields, our state senators and delegates will cast votes to either ban fracking permanently, continue a moratorium or allow fracking permits in October 2017. Here’s the inside news about Maryland’s fracking fight, as well as the best actions you can take to make your voice heard about fracking’s fate in western Maryland.
The Fracking Boom
After 12 years and 137,000 unconventional natural gas fracking wells drilled in America, Maryland will be the only state where legislators will decide whether to frack or not. In 2011, Governor O’Malley signed an executive order that halted any fracking permit approvals by the Maryland Department of the Environment. No fracking wells have been drilled in Maryland.
Twenty-plus other states — the biggies being Pennsylvania, Texas, West Virginia and Louisiana — dove headfirst into fracking beginning in 2003. Citizens residing in those states had no choice in the matter, as their state officials supported fracking from the get-go.
New York banned fracking in 2014. Based on a major health review, the acting health commissioner stated, “I asked myself, ‘Would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.”
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation made the permanent ban official.
Fracking is a Hot Mess
The winners of the fracking boom have been the energy industry and consumers. Oil and gas companies are making big bucks off the oil found in North Dakota and the natural gas that fracking makes accessible from miles underground in shale deposits. Gas drillers have over-drilled, and the ensuing natural gas glut has forced down consumer and business natural gas prices to record lows — for now, at least. Everything will change when the U.S. starts shipping our cheap natural gas overseas.
The losers have been the 15-million-plus Americans who live within fracking areas. The 137,000 fracking wells drilled are plopped right into rural communities. Complaints of drinking water contamination, land degradation, ubiquitous air pollution and serious health issues (cancer, premature births and asthma) are common for citizens living near fracking wells.
Pennsylvania’s recent complaint data dump offers a window into what Maryland can expect. Since 2004, 10,027 fracking wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania; our sister state is the nation’s number one gas producer.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection just released to the nonprofit Public Herald 9,442 never-before-seen citizen-reported complaints. Forty-four percent are drinking water-related. The complaint data points to a disturbing trend: Even though Pennsylvania improved regulations and frackers gained experience year after year, citizen complaints increased to 40 percent of wells drilled. The opposite should have happened.
Baltimore County Sen. Jim Brochin offers this perspective on fracking: “I’d say to proponents of fracking, ‘Why don’t we start fracking in your backyard first?’ Then you can drink the water and let your kids play outside and breathe in the toxic air pollution.”
A Key Senate Committee Decides Fracking
Fracking’s fate will be decided in the next few weeks in Maryland’s General Assembly, specifically in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee chaired by Baltimore City Sen. Joan Carter Conway. She and the committee’s 10 others members will decide which, if any, of two fracking-related bills will leave committee for a full Senate vote.
Earlier this month, Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin introduced a measure to permanently ban hydraulic fracturing (the technically precise name for fracking). That same day, Conway introduced her own bill calling for a moratorium on fracking through October 2018, along with an option for jurisdictional referenda thereafter, a measure that would appease industry interests and proponents of fracking.
Both bills would fend off Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration’s plans to let companies start drilling this year. The Maryland Department of the Environment published draft regulations this past November that could open up state land for well drilling once the current moratorium expires, if the General Assembly doesn’t pass any new measures. The Maryland Department of the Environment says its plan “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.”
The General Assembly’s Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review committee, which reviews all proposed state regulation changes, asked the Maryland Department of the Environment to delay adopting any new regulations pending a further review, but that hold expires at the end of this month.
The House will likely support Zirkin’s all-out fracking ban. If the committee kills both bills, in theory, the state could offer preliminary permits to companies to drill for natural gas after Oct. 1, 2017, when the current moratorium ends.
The Proposed Fracking Ban Explained
Zirkin sees the issue of fracking as a simple matter.
“I’ve been in office 19 years. Never have I encountered an issue so black and white,” he said. “Usually, environmental bills have two sides: Economic interests weighed against environmental impacts. The fracking debate stops dead in its tracks when you review the hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies citing serious human health impacts.”
Baltimore’s own Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a study validating two concerns about serious health outcomes for moms living in high fracking areas: a 40 percent increase in premature deliveries and a 30 percent increase in high-risk pregnancies.
“It’s really a moral issue given the mountain of negative public health evidence,” said Zirkin, who likens fracking to the use of lead paint. “The difference is that we can choose to stop the practice before it causes harm to Maryland’s citizens. Imagine if we had known the negative health outcomes associated with lead paint before a single paint can was sold? Then imagine if legislators had voted to allow lead paint regardless? That would have been legislative malfeasance and recklessness.”
Sen. Conway’s office hasn’t returned a message requesting comment.
What Can One Person do to Make a Difference?
#1: Visit or Contact Your State Senator
Not sure who your senator is? Check here.
“Twenty people visiting their state senator as a group makes a big difference,” Sen. Brochin explains. “If you can’t visit Annapolis, send an email, mail a letter or call your senator’s office. It all matters. Elected officials need to know what their constituents want.”
#2: Attend the Fracking Ban’s Senate Hearing on Feb. 28
Simple enough: Show up to the Senate public hearing for the fracking ban bill in Annapolis on Feb. 28.
#3: Join the Statewide Fracking March and Rally in Annapolis on March 2
Don’t Frack Maryland, a coalition of health professionals, religious congregations, businesses, citizens and environmental groups, has organized a march in Annapolis on Thursday, March 2. The march begins at 1 p.m. at the Asbury United Methodist Church, located at 87 West Street, and ends at Lawyers Mall at 100 State Circle. A rally with cool speakers will be held from 1:30-2:30 p.m. Click here for bus transportation and march and rally details.
Fracking’s Future: It’s All About Exports
It’s important to know that our country’s future fossil fuel energy strategy rests on fracking. Though the industry markets fracking as “domestic energy independence,” fracking’s long-term play is really about selling our natural gas overseas for higher prices in foreign markets.
Given that oceans separate countries, the oil and gas industry is waiting for five liquid natural gas export facilities, including Maryland’s Cove Point, to become fully operational. As shown below, once those gas nozzles are open, hundreds of thousands of fracking wells must be drilled to support these sky-high gas export plans.
If these trade projections are realized, will large parts of the U.S. become uninhabitable? Will domestic natural gas prices rise? Climate change, anyone?
At least this year, Maryland has the opportunity to choose whether to frack or not.
Ethan McLeod contributed reporting to this story.