A Maryland bill to prohibit hydraulic fracturing for more than two years will become law Saturday without Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature, according to Hogan’s office.
The legislation will bar the state from issuing permits for the controversial drilling practice until October 2017. It requires Maryland’s Department of the Environment to adopt regulations for the practice by October 2016.
As a candidate last year, Hogan (R) expressed strong support for hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping highly pressurized liquid deep into the ground to split rock and draw out natural gas and petroleum.
He criticized the administration of then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) for “kicking the can down the road” and “trying not to make any decision” about authorizing the drilling technique, also known as “fracking.” He also said the state was “sitting on an economic gold mine” given its potential for natural-gas extraction.
The governor had until the end of Friday to either sign or veto the moratorium legislation before it became law by default. He decided to take no action, allowing the measure passed earlier this year by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly to take effect without his explicit approval.
Hogan spokesman Matt Clark said the governor “continues to support the safe and responsible development of energy to meet the current and future needs of citizens and to promote job growth in Western Maryland.”
Blocking the moratorium would have been difficult, because the bill was approved with veto-proof margins: 103 to 33 in the House of Delegates and 45 to 2 in the Senate.
Sen. Karen S. Montgomery (D-Montgomery), the bill’s Senate sponsor, said she was “relieved and delighted” with the governor’s decision. “Now we have two years to continue to compile indisputable scientific data,” she said.
Various groups in recent years have fought efforts to open Maryland to hydraulic fracturing, with a coalition of environmental activists, concerned residents, businesses, health professionals, farmers and others working under the banner of the Don’t Frack Maryland campaign.
“The movement behind this moratorium was unyielding,” Mitch Jones, a director with Food and Water Watch, an NGO, said in a statement Friday. “Passing a moratorium under a pro-fracking governor is a testament to the effectiveness that organizing can have.”
The Maryland Petroleum Council, which opposed the drilling moratorium, expressed disappointment that the measure would take effect.
“We think it unnecessarily draws out the regulatory process,” said Drew Cobbs, the group’s executive director. “Most Marylanders are already benefitting from shale development because of lower energy costs and cleaner air. Unfortunately, because of this delay, the folks in Western Maryland who could benefit from natural-gas development will have to wait to take advantage of this safe and proven technology.”
Hydraulic fracturing has expanded rapidly in recent years in the western half of the country in states such as Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming. In the East, Pennsylvania and West Virginia allow the practice, but New York state banned it last year.
Fracking in Maryland could provide new jobs and a cleaner source of cleaner than fossil fuels such as coal. But there are many unknowns about the technique’s impacts, and opponents say it could lead to contaminated water, earthquakes and other environmental problems.
O’Malley (D) established a special commission in 2011 to determine whether the state could allow fracking and still protect public health and safety as well as natural resources and the environment. The administration ultimately concluded that strict regulations could adequately manage the risks.
A study last year from Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute found that hydraulic fracturing in Western Maryland could generate more than 3,000 jobs and upwards of $5 million in new tax revenue each year during peak drilling.
But 56 percent of state respondents in a February Washington Post-University of Maryland poll said they oppose the use of fracking, compared to 36 percent who supported it.
Weeks before leaving office, O’Malley proposed rules to restrict fracking locations and limit the related potential for air pollution and contamination of drinking water. Hogan put the regulations on hold after taking office, saying his administration needed time to review them. Clark said Hogan has directed the Department of the Environment to continue working on “balanced and protective regulations based on sound scientific input.”