Opponents up the ante on fracking
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By Bryan Sears, The Daily Record, December 29, 2013
Opponents of fracking will march on Annapolis on the opening day of the General Assembly session to urge legislators to put a stop to the gas extraction process in Maryland.
But rather than the moratorium proposed in the previous session, legislators may opt this time to consider an outright ban on the controversial process — known more formally as hydraulic fracturing — even though a commission appointed by the governor is working to finalize a report that is not expected to be ready until August.
A coalition of environmental groups, including Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the League of Conservation Voters, has made a fracking moratorium one of its core issues for the coming 90-day session. “The General Assembly should pass a legislative moratorium,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
A legislative moratorium, however, may not be in the cards, as opponents appear to be moving in another direction.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said he is leaning away from reintroducing the bill he sponsored during the 2013 session that would have created an 18-month moratorium from the date the commission’s final report is due. Instead, he said, he favors legislation imposing an outright ban.
“I have no interest in half measures,” Zirkin said, referring to his previous bill.
Zirkin said he plans to sign on to a bill sponsored by Sen. Karen Montgomery, D-Montgomery, that would ban fracking in the state, but is prepared to introduce his own. A bill banning the process is also expected to be introduced in the House of Delegates.
Montgomery was not available for comment for this article.
The fight over fracking returns to the state capital even as a commission appointed in 2011 by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley to study the issue moves closer to the expected August deadline for producing a final report and recommendations.
Currently, the panel is finalizing the second of three reports on the issue. That report was due this past August.
Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the second phase was delayed to allow the commission to do a more complete study.
Several other component studies are also being conducted and will be added into the commission’s final report. Included in those is an economic impact study by the Regional Economic Studies Institute and a health impact study by the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.
De facto moratorium
While state officials and activists agree that the current delay while the commission conducts its review is not an official moratorium, the two-year study has had the effect of one.
A number of companies that had applied for hydraulic fracturing permits for Western Maryland have allowed those applications to expire, said Apperson.
It is unlikely that any interested party will apply for another permit until the commission has completed its work and laid out a standard for protecting the environment.
Tidwell said environmental activists are concerned that the commission’s report will not be delivered on time in August. He called on the legislature to take steps to prevent drilling in Maryland.
“This is the last chance the General Assembly will have to put their own stamp on this issue,” Tidwell said. “The General Assembly should pass a moratorium.”
Any attempt by Zirkin or others to impose an outright ban faces a significant test in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee.
Bucking the chairwoman
In the 2013 session, Zirkin’s moratorium bill died in that committee by a 6-5 vote. Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, cast the tiebreaking vote.
Opponents of fracking see Conway, the chairwoman of the committee, as a significant hurdle.
“She’s been consistently opposed to a moratorium,” said Tidwell, of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Conway was out of town and was not available to comment for this article.
In November, however, the senator acknowledged her sometimes rocky relationship with environmental groups that want a ban on hydraulic fracturing.
“You know, the environmentalists are not happy with me that I don’t let [the bills] out,” Conway said to a November meeting in Annapolis of the Rural Counties Coalition. “But it’s a reality and matter of why would you ban something when you don’t have the scientific data and you don’t know if it really causes harm to the environment.
“I don’t let the bills out,” she said. “I’m not the enemy. I’m a rational person, and I understand certain things have to happen, but I am not going to ban fracking.”
More of the ‘madness’
Conway said she believed environmental groups would keep coming back to the legislature over the issue.
“They’re going to continue with this madness,” Conway said.
One consequence of Conway’s stand is that supporters of a ban will have to find another vote to get the bill onto the floor of the Senate this session.
“We’ll be looking for ways to get a real vote on this issue,” Zirkin said.
Joanna Diamond, director of Environment Maryland, said she believes most environmental groups who support a moratorium would support a ban if that was the only option.
“We want to keep fracking out of Maryland,” said Diamond. “A moratorium is a means to an end.”
Diamond said her group supports an outright ban, but she acknowledged that passage would be difficult.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle,” she said.