March 9, 2013
By: Sebastian Rowland
The Maryland State Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs committee voted 6-5 this past Thursday to not advance the “Maryland Hydraulic Fracturing Moratorium and Right to know act of 2013.” This vote means that the moratorium will not become a law.
In June 2011, Governor Martin O’Malley issued an executive order requiring the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDEP) and the Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources to study the impacts of fracking and placed a moratorium on the practice until the studies were completed. The order anticipated that the studies would be finished by August 2014.
The de facto moratorium forbids MDEP and Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources from approving permits for hydraulic fracturing before completing a suite of studies, and added a public health risk assessment to the required studies.
After completion of the studies, MDEP would also have to implement regulations to protect the environment and public health before issuing fracturing permits.
Although the moratorium will not become state law, the committee’s decision will not diminish the requirements of the Executive Order. O’Malley’s Executive Order will remain in place until August 2014.
Hydraulic fracturing is a fossil fuel extraction technique in which deep holes are drilled vertically and then into horizontal branches. These branches are flooded with chemicals to fracture rocks containing oil and natural gas.
Environmentalists decry the practice because it contributes to climate change, can contaminate ground water, and consumes large quantities of fresh water.
At this stage, no fracking permits have been issued in Maryland. Some oil and gas companies, including Samson Resources, have bought leases for mineral rights in Western Maryland, but have allowed these leases to expire.
The industry has shown interest in developing wells in Garrett and Allegany counties in Maryland, which overlay the Marcellus shale, which is responsible for Pennsylvania’s fracking boon.
Representatives from local environmental and health groups are for the moratorium. These groups include Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), Trout Unlimited, Maryland Nurses Association, League of Women Voters, Maryland Environmental Health Network, as well as Marylanders from Western Maryland.
These groups are concerned that without the moratorium, the state of Maryland could face lawsuits from the industry. They are also think that the the moratorium may end in 2014 without a complete report on the possible health impacts.
Mike Tidwell, director of CCAN, citing a previous lawsuit by Dominion Energy company, said that, “Unless you have a statute in place, not an executive order, then we’re not really sure what the outcome could be in court.” He, as well other environmentalists, are concerned that the moratorium may end preemptively if the studies are not completed by August 2014.
Representatives from the Maryland Farm Bureau, Chevron, and the American Natural Gas Association, as well as some Garret County farmers, argued that legalizing the moratorium was unnecessary.
A spokesman for the Maryland Petroleum Council, Drew Cobb, explained that industry interest in Maryland was too low to merit a moratorium. “The bill sends the wrong message to the business community,” argued Garrett County Commissioner James Raley. “If anyone can do it right, Maryland can do it right,” he concluded.
78% of Marylander voters showed support for the health and safety impact studies in a February 2013 survey conducted by Annapolis-based Opinionworks. The survey was commissioned by CCAN, which has been organizing the Maryland community to support the moratorium and studies.
CCAN is holding a rally March 13 in Annapolis, Md to protest the decision to halt the moratorium on fracking.
Maryland is not the only state to face this issue- New York state is also considering whether to continue its moratorium on fracking. The NY state senate recently approved a bill to extend the moratorium until 2015.
The Executive Order will remain in place until August 2014 and the Senate anticipates facing the bill next year. Also, the health and environmental impact studies are underway, with $1.5 million in funding from Governor O’Malley.