Maryland’s Coming Fracking Showdown
By Mark Uncapher
The clock is counting down toward an important decision for Maryland’s economic future, namely whether to allow hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, to drill for natural gas in the state.
Over a year ago, legislation that blocked fracking for another two years became law without Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature. That law barred the state from issuing drilling permits until October 2017 and required the Department of the Environment to adopt new regulations by October 2016. The passage of this law effectively delayed any decision on fracking until next year.
To recap: the Marcellus Shale is a geological formation found throughout the northern Appalachian basin in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Western Maryland. Within it, the US Energy Department estimates 262 trillion cubic feet of natural gas exists, making it the largest onshore natural gas reserve in the U.S. In Maryland, the majority of the Marcellus Shale formation is in Allegany??? and Garrett counties. As in the past beginning with coal, the Western Maryland region has been no stranger to energy production. Natural gas has been produced in Allegany and Garrett counties for decades, with production peaking in the 1950s.
As Maryland awaits a green light for fracking to begin, other states are reaping an economic bonanza. According to a 2011 Penn State study, just over the border to the north, that state’s Marcellus Shale producers generated an estimated $12.8 billion in economic activity in 2011. Over multiple years the extra income translates to almost $2.6 billion in additional state and local tax revenue. Ohio has added 6,000 jobs and over $400 million in new tax revenues.
Beyond the economic benefits, however, environmentalists should applaud the changes that the U.S. has been able to achieve as a result of fracking. Groups such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) have all attributed the 27 year low in CO2 emissions to the transition in U.S. energy sourcing away from dirtier coal, made possible by fracking and the increased use of natural gas.
However starting in 2011, Gov. Martin O’Malley blocked fracking and ordered a three-year moratorium while a state advisory committee “studied” the issue. Since O’Malley’s study period “expired,” during the 2015 session, the legislature imposed a further delay that prevented the state from issuing fracking permits until October 1, 2017.
The Hogan administration has moved forward, despite these roadblocks. Earlier this year, the administration proposed rules that would limit the hurdles that energy companies are forced to overcome before they start drilling for gas. The plan increases the burden on gas drillers to prevent leaks by requiring several more layers of concrete and casing around wells and mandating periodic tests of the integrity of the wells. According to the Maryland Petroleum Council, the state’s rules would be “by far be the toughest and strongest regulations dealing with hydraulic fracturing of anywhere in the country.” The Hogan administration regulatory proposal is intended to strike a balance between competing interests, while protecting the environment and public health.
Yet it seems unlikely that the Maryland legislature will attempt to revisit the issue during this session. Environmentalists can be counted on to offer a parade of horribles to further delay Maryland fracking.
Consider, however, that in 2010 Congress directed Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency to study fracking. For the study, the EPA analyzed more than 3,500 sources of information, including previously published papers, state reports and the agency’s own scientific research. As one would expect, or at least hope, if the EPA had any solid scientific evidence to question fracking, it would have been reported by this time. However, the EPA’s conclusion in this landmark study has been that fracking causes no widespread harm to drinking water. Clearly no compelling contrary evidence has yet been unearthed.
Fast forward to the 2017 legislation session. The Hogan administration has moved forward with a careful, deliberate plan to allow fracking in Maryland.
However according to The Washington Post, several anti-fracking lawmakers already indicate that they want to permanently ban this plan during the next legislative session. Among them, Sen. Robert Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) says he will introduce a fracking ban next year, just as he has in prior years.
We will see whether those in the legislature who are opposed to it respond.