Maryland regulators are paving the way for energy companies to begin fracking in the state once its moratorium on the controversial gas-extraction process ends in the fall of 2017.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers opposed to the drilling method, technically called hydraulic fracturing, have begun making plans to permanently ban it during the next legislative session.
Maryland’s Department of the Environment this month outlined proposals that closely align with rules the administration of former Democratic governor Martin O’Malley pitched several years ago, but with faster permitting and looser requirements for buffers to protect areas near the sites.
The department briefed the public on its proposals this week in Allegany County, and it has scheduled meetings in Baltimore on Monday and Garrett County on Wednesday.
Environmental watchdogs plan to protest at the Baltimore event with former gas-industry workers and Pennsylvania residents who say they were harmed by hydraulic fracturing. Some are taking a zero-tolerance approach to the drilling method, which has raised concerns about groundwater contamination, air pollution and earthquakes.
“There’s no evidence that regulations of any kind can protect the environment from fracking,” said Thomas Meyer, a senior organizer with the advocacy group Food and Water Watch. “This underscores the need for the legislature to pass a ban.”
Several Maryland lawmakers plan to propose prohibitions during the 2017 legislative session.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored a bill to ban fracking in 2014, said he will introduce a similar measure next year, which he sees as the last chance to block drilling before the state’s moratorium expires in October 2017.
“We have one shot to prevent this,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to stop this.”
Del. A. Shane Robinson (D-Montgomery), who sponsored bills to ban fracking in 2013 and 2014, said he might introduce such legislation in the House next year. “If somebody else doesn’t do it, I will plan on cross-filing Zirkin’s legislation,” he said.
Fracking supporters say the extraction method, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into deep wells to break up rock and release natural gas, could provide economic benefits for Western Maryland.
A 2014 study by Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute found hydraulic fracturing in that area of the state could generate more than 3,000 jobs and at least $5 million in tax revenue each year during peak drilling.
“It could help our economy considerably,” said Sen. George C. Edwards (R-Garrett). “This is one of the poorest parts of Maryland. The key is to monitor it and make sure people are doing what the department says they should do.”
The state’s new plans are a slightly revised version of regulations released during the final weeks of O’Malley’s second term.
Instead of requiring setbacks of 1,000 feet between the overall fracking operations and places where people live and work, the buffer would extend from the gas wells themselves.
The permit-review process also would be simplified to shorten it from the expected seven months the O’Malley plans would have required. Regulators also have proposed moving air-quality testing from the fracking sites to a monitoring station in Frostburg.
Maryland Environment Secretary Benjamin H. Grumbles defended the state’s proposals, saying his department must be doing something right if both sides of the debate are unsatisfied.
“We’re working toward the middle, trying to find a sweet spot between stringent regulations and workable, achievable requirements,” he said. “We want to protect public health and the environment, and recognize that the market is going to determine whether we get applicants for fracking down the road.”
Industry groups say opponents have little to complain about with the proposed rules.
“They’ll still be the toughest, strongest hydraulic-fracturing regulations in the country,” said Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council.
But opponents say the state will suffer in the long term if it allows fracking to take place.
“The type of damage done by the fracking industry is hard to undo,” Zirkin said. “It’s an inherently dangerous industry.”