The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ban fracking in Maryland? Extending moratorium seems more likely

Fracking opponents are convinced that the drilling practice can contaminate drinking water. (Pat Sullivan/Associated Press)

Maryland fracking opponents are pushing hard for a state law to prohibit the controversial gas-extraction method, but lawmakers seem more likely to extend the existing moratorium on the practice during the upcoming legislative session.

Advocates for a ban expect resistance from Sen. Joan Carter Conway ­(D-Baltimore), who chairs a committee that oversees environmental affairs and has stopped previous attempts to prohibit the drilling technique, also known as hydraulic fracturing.

Activists, expecting a major fight over the issue during the lawmaking session that begins Jan. 11, have spent the past few months putting pressure on Conway and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), including by holding demonstrations in each of their districts.

But with Conway showing no signs of changing her position, and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) saying for years that he supports fracking with strict safeguards in place, even the staunchest supporters of a ban are preparing for compromise.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who has promised to sponsor a bill to ban fracking, said he would accept a moratorium as a last resort to stop the drilling practice, which is already prevalent in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, from moving into Maryland.

Zirkin said he would consider trying to steer a bill proposing a ban through the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which he chairs, to allow the full Senate to vote on the issue.

“I believe this should and will get to the floor in one form or another,” he said. “This issue is not going away quietly.”

Fracking, which involves injecting sand and chemicals deep into the ground to break up rock and release natural gas, could bring jobs and economic benefits to western Maryland, where drilling is most likely to occur. But opponents say it contaminates drinking water and can cause earthquakes and environmental damage, particularly when wastewater from the process is pumped back into the ground.

In 2015, the legislature approved a two-year moratorium on fracking and ordered the state environmental department to draft regulations for the practice. The hold ends in October, and the Hogan administration proposed its guidelines this fall, creating a sense of urgency among fracking opponents.

Maryland fracking regulations include enhanced buffers around wells

“It would be the height of legislative malfeasance if we don’t put a stop to this,” Zirkin said. “We’re standing on the edge of a cliff, and if we don’t act this session, we would be jumping off.”

Conway, who did not respond to requests for comment last week, has long questioned whether a ban on fracking is necessary. She opposed efforts to move a ban bill out of her committee in 2015 and worked to amend the moratorium passed that year so it would expire sooner than originally proposed.

Activists working to win over the Baltimore Democrat may have damaged their chances by holding a rally outside her district office last month. Conway told the Daily Record newspaper at the time that she felt “insulted” because the participants did not consult with her before holding the protest.

Del. A. Shane Robinson (D-Montgomery County), who has sponsored past legislation to prohibit fracking, questioned whether the rally made sense strategically. “I’m not against protesting, but I don’t think it helped bring her to the table,” he said.

Activists from the anti-fracking group Food and Water Watch also organized a parade of advocates to speak at a League of Women Voters forum in Miller’s district last month, calling on the Senate president to support a ban. The organization held a rally in Miller’s district last week.

Aeryn Boyd and Kim Alexander, who attended the forum after completing a 313-mile walk across the state to promote a fracking ban, said they met with Miller afterward and he promised to keep an open mind.

“I hope he’ll keep listening,” Boyd said.

Miller’s office declined to comment for this article.

Food and Water Watch organizer Thomas Meyer said his group wants the Senate leader to know that voters in his district are “concerned about fracking and paying attention to what he does on the issue.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has said little about fracking, largely deferring to Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), a fracking opponent who chairs the chamber’s environmental committee.

Barve said he expects his committee to “move forward decisively” with legislation to either ban fracking or extend the moratorium.

“The majority of people in Maryland want to ban fracking, and I think the majority of legislators on the House side feel the same way,” he said.

Robinson, a member of the House environmental committee, said he will consider sponsoring legislation to ban fracking if no one else on the panel does so. But he expressed doubts about whether such a bill could end up on Hogan’s desk next year.

“I think in all likelihood we’ll end up with a moratorium of some amount of time,” Robinson said.

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll in September showed that 60 percent of Marylanders oppose fracking, compared with 56 percent in 2015. Sixty-six percent said they think the practice would pose significant risks to the environment, while 43 percent said they think it would provide an economic benefit to the state.

“The more people find out about fracking, the more they’re opposed to it,” Meyer said.

Some businesses in Western Maryland, particularly those associated with tourism, have sided with the anti-fracking movement. But lawmakers from the region say only a small number of residents there oppose the drilling method, and noted that in 2014, the most recent General Assembly elections, voters in western Maryland elected exclusively pro-fracking candidates.

“In general, I think it would be unfair to suggest that there’s been a significant movement of people opposed to fracking in Allegany or Garrett,” said Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-District 1B).

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