February 22, 2013

The Post may have concluded that “fracking” for natural gas can be done safely [“The natural-gas boom,” editorial, Feb. 15], but Marylanders have not. The Post welcomes this controversial method of extracting natural gas, but we have seen neighboring states dive headlong into drilling, only to face regrets later.

In Maryland, we are hitting the pause button on fracking and asking important questions first. That’s why Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) called for a study of this issue in 2011 and why Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) and I want to give the study the force of law by legislating a moratorium until the state’s comprehensive review is complete. A 2012 OpinionWorks poll showed that 71 percent of Marylanders favored studies before fracking. We want science to inform our decisions. Only when we are certain that fracking is safe should we proceed.

Certainly, some entities and individuals will benefit if we permit fracking in Maryland, including natural gas companies. Landowners who sell gas leases could use the money to pay off a mortgage or put a child through college. But by peering over our state’s borders, we also know that many communities may be harmed. Accidental spills lead to contaminated streams; truck traffic can damage roads; leaks of methane gas from wells and other infrastructure warm the atmosphere; and rents will rise when out-of-state workers come to town. If fracking comes to Maryland, will we have more losers than winners?

Illness, dead livestock, contaminated drinking water and increased seismic activity are among the types of damage that have been linked to fracking. Will economic losses to Western Maryland’s agricultural industry exceed the income from drilling? Will new jobs outnumber jobs lost from a decline in tourism? Will we pay more in health-care costs than we earn from new jobs? Will home and business owners experience a devaluation of their property? We don’t know. Maryland must demand answers before we put public health, environment and local economies at risk.

We also need to take the long view on the climate. Yes, natural gas produces less planet-warming carbon dioxide than does coal at the moment it is burned, but studies and new EPA estimates report that the life cycle of methane emissions can make natural gas a dirtier fossil fuel than coal. Methane traps far more heat in the atmosphere than does carbon dioxide, and researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have found methane leakage rates as high as 9 percent. For natural gas to be better for the climate than coal, that leakage rate needs to be less than 2 percent, according to Tom M.L. Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The governor has included $1.5 million in his proposed fiscal 2014 budget to answer remaining questions about this practice and its long-term implications — and a legislative moratorium guarantees time for a thorough review of this analysis. We will not get a second chance to get this right.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates.

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