The Maryland House of Delegates passed legislation Tuesday that would forbid natural-gas drilling in the western part of the state for three years, while the state Senate approved a bill that would hold drilling companies financially responsible if things go wrong.
Each bill generated hours of debate and is far from becoming law. Even if approved by the other chamber, either or both bills could be vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has called such drilling “an economic gold mine.”
For years, Maryland officials have weighed the potential benefits and risks of hydraulic fracturing, which injects high-pressured liquids into underground rock formations to extract natural gas.
The practice, known as fracking, could provide much-needed jobs in the state while tapping a cleaner source of energy. But there are many unknowns about fracking, and opponents say it could lead to contaminated water, earthquakes and other environmental problems.
On Friday, the Obama administration imposed tighter standards for fracking on federal land. Some environmental groups complained that those rules did not go far enough, while two energy industry groups called them a “reaction to unsubstantiated concerns.”
Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which border Western Maryland, allow fracking. Both states have large chunks of gas-rich land, but only a small swath of Maryland is suitable for fracking.
Late last year, then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said Maryland could allow fracking — but only if coupled with public health and environmental safeguards that would be among the most restrictive in the country. The regulations, introduced by O’Malley on Jan. 9, are working their way through a review process.
Hogan, who took office Jan. 21, “is currently reviewing both pieces of legislation,” spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said. “However, as he has repeatedly said, if fracking can be done in an environmentally safe way, then he would want to move forward with it.”
The House bill that would forbid the state from issuing fracking permits for three years so that a panel could study the potential public health and environmental impacts passed 93 to 45. Proponents noted a recent fracking ban in New York, which followed a state report that raised a number of health concerns.
“We want to get the science right,” said Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery).
Some lawmakers argued against the bill, saying the future of the region’s economy depends on fracking. “This issue has been studied to death,” said Del. Haven N. Shoemaker Jr. (R-Carroll), sounding frustrated. “We need to quit fracking around and bring jobs to Western Maryland.”
But several argued that there is still more to study — and that the state needs to be cautious. “It is the health and safety of our citizens,” said Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s). “If we get this wrong, it’s not fixable. You cannot undo this.”
The moratorium legislation now needs the approval of the Maryland Senate, which voted 29 to 17 Tuesday in favor of a bill that would hold energy companies financially liable if their fracking causes injury, death or loss of property.
“Strict liability” already exists for fracking that happens on state property, said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), the bill’s sponsor. The legislation would extend that protection to include land owned by counties or private individuals.
“This bill is about the law,” Zirkin said. “It’s about what happens when there are problems, when somebody is injured, when there is contamination. And the question is: In a court of law, who pays for it? Who is responsible?’
A few Republicans questioned why Zirkin’s bill describes hydraulic fracturing as “an ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous activity.” Sen. George C. Edwards (Garrett) said several industries are much more dangerous yet don’t have the same restrictions. He urged lawmakers to wait for Hogan’s review of the pending regulations before passing legislation like this.
“If we’re going to do this for one industry, we should do it for all of them,” Edwards said.
With just three weeks left in the 90-day session, lawmakers worked late into the night Monday and then gathered again Tuesday morning to work through a backlog of bills.
The Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to increase the mandatory retirement age for state judges from 70 to 73, to monitor the number of opioid treatment programs in some Zip codes and to include a prepaid envelope when distributing absentee ballots.
Senators voted 32 to 15 to require online hotel booking companies to collect sales tax for the entire cost of a hotel room and give that full amount to the state, rather than keeping part of it as a service fee. Senators also approved the Maryland False Claims Act, which was proposed by Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) and would make it easier for the state to recover money from private contractors who submit fraudulent bills.
All those bills now go to the House for consideration.
The House approved a bill that sets up an “Orange Ribbon” certification for schools with later start times, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with the state’s education and health departments. To qualify, schools may not have middle or high school students in class before 8:30 a.m. or on the bus before 7:30 a.m. The bill heads to the Senate.
Both chambers approved a bill that would allow residents who have an intersex condition or who have undergone a sex change to receive a new birth certificate and another bill that would require health insurance companies to cover infertility services for same-sex couples.