In a stunning reversal, Gov. Larry Hogan on Friday called for lawmakers to pass legislation permanently banning the natural gas drilling technique known as “fracking” in Maryland.

Speaking at a press conference in the State House in Annapolis, Hogan said that since the legislature had not acted on new drilling regulations his administration had proposed, he had decided that banning hydraulic fracturing for gas was the only thing to do.

“Because of Maryland’s unique position in the country and our wealth of environmental resources,” Hogan said, “our administration has concluded that the possible environmental risks of fracking siimply outweigh any potential benefits.” 

His announcement surprised advocates both for and against fracking, as Hogan had previously declared his support for the drilling technique if it could be done safely. And it came as pressure grew on the state Senate to act on an issue that has dogged lawmakers for years, after the House of Delegates passed ban legislation last week by a veto-proof margin of 97 to 40. The House ban would have permanently banned fracking, while the Senate has two competing bills, one that would impose a ban and another that would continue a moratorium until individual counties could vote on whether they wanted the practice.

The Republican governor’s announcement clears the way for the Senate to join the House in enacting a ban, which Hogan has signaled he would sign.

Fracking - the general term for drilling horizontally deep underground, then injecting liquid at high pressure into rocks to force fissures and extract oil or gas – has divided Western Maryland, the only area of the state to draw the energy industry’s interest to date.  Companies have drilled thousands of wells using the technique in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia. While companies have drilled conventional oil and gas wells in Maryland, they haven’t been allowed to drill and frack the deep wells.

Proponents argue that extracting the gas in Marcellus Shale deposits in Garrett and Allegany counties could bring jobs and boost the economically depressed region. But critics, pointing to problems with fracking in neighboring states, and studies finding health risks associated with the practice, fear it could foul the air and drinking water and hurt the region’s tourism and outdoor recreation industries. Those include the popular Wisp ski resort and state parks such as New Germany, popular with snow shoe-ers and cross-country skiers, as well as more than a dozen recreational fishing guides who ply the Savage, Potomac and Casselman rivers looking for trout.

Others have argued that the state and nation need to move away from reliance on fossil fuels like natural gas if they are going to combat climate change.

“It’s a bright day for us in Western Maryland, absolutely, and we’re very appreciative of the governor coming to his senses, doing this,” said Paul Roberts, a Garrett County winemaker and board president of the anti-fracking group Citizen Shale. “I was involved in this with Nadine, my wife, for seven years, and I could recall when you could count on a couple of hands the number of people who even knew what fracking was.”

New York state, also overlying potentially gas-rich shale deposits, has banned fracking by its governor’s order out of concern for its risks. But advocates note that Maryland would become the first state in the nation to ban it by legislation if it passes and is signed or allowed to become law by Hogan.

The energy industry, which once leased rights to drill over much of Garrett County, had at one time been pressing to drill in Western Maryland. But a bonanza of wells drilled elsewhere in the country has yielded a glut in natural gas, driving down prices and profits, reducing incentives for the industry to prospect for new reserves. Most of the leases signed years ago have been allowed to lapse, which led proponents and opponents alike to acknowledge there likely wouldn’t be a rush to drill in Maryland even if permitted.

Even so, an industry spokesman called Hogan’s decision to support the ban “short-sighted” and premature, because the Senate had yet to vote. Supporters have argued that fracking has been in widespread use around the nation for decades and has given a boost to the economies of neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“Maryland families and opportunities for job creation have lost out to the whims of a vocal minority – inconsistent with the governor’s vision to create well-paying jobs in Maryland,” said Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council. 

After several years of debate and study, Maryland lawmakers imposed a temporary moratorium two years ago to give state regulators time to draw up regulatory safeguards for the practice. That moratorium is scheduled to end Oct. 1. Last year, the Department of the Environment proposed what Hogan contended are the toughest fracking regulations of any state in the country, which he argued would have made it “virtually impossible” for any drilling to be permitted. But a joint House-Senate committee found the rules not stringent enough, and put a hold on them.

Fracking opponents began an intense ban campaign even before the legislative session opened in January, and have staged several rallies in Annapolis.  Earlier this week, several protesters were arrested for blocking the State House steps as they fought to bring pressure on the Senate to act. Opponents included environmental and clean-energy advocates but also organic farmers, business people and outdoor enthusiasts. Fracking has become a major issue in the region, in large part because of the spills and explosions that occurred in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania.

Democratic Senate leaders have been reluctant to bring the ban bill to a vote in committee, saying that although the measure has the backing of a majority of the 47 senators, there still weren’t the 29 votes needed to override the veto that had been expected.  Instead, Senate leaders backed a competing bill that would continue the moratorium temporarily and let voters in each county decide by referendum whether to permit or ban fracking. 

Fracking supporters also backed that bill, believing that enough Western Maryland residents favored gas drilling to carry a referendum. Hogan said at the Friday press conference that he had heard that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and others were talking about revising that measure to allow fracking by making it a statewide referendum – which meant that it would be put on the ballot at the same time voters would be casting ballots for governor and other state offices.

A spokesman for Miller issued a statement after Hogan’s announcement saying the longtime Democratic Senate leader from Calvert County had never supported fracking but wanted to let the people of Garrett and Allegany counties “have their voice.

“The advocates for fracking have claimed that the people of Western Maryland are for fracking,” Miller added, “and I believed it was important to let those residents’ opinions be heard.”

Fracking opponents, though, said Friday that they believed they were very close to gaining the support of enough senators to override a veto, overcoming leaders’ objections to the ban bill. Then Hogan made his announcement:

“Protecting our clean water supply and our natural resources is critically important to Marylanders,” Hogan said, “and we simply cannot allow the door to be opened for fracking in our state.”

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who is chief sponsor of the Senate’s ban bill, joined Hogan at the press conference.

“There simply is no regulatory way to protect our citizens from the dangers of this technology,” Zirkin said, while thanking the governor for his announcement. He called fracking a “bipartisan issue.” Also present was Sen. Bryan Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican who declared his previously undisclosed support for the ban. He said he had withheld judgment until now, but now hoped the ban would go through.

Some saw Hogan’s announcement as a shrewd political move, intended to neutralize an issue that might be used against him in his planned reelection campaign next year.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat and one of the legislature’s leading environmental advocates, said he believed Hogan changed his position because polls have increasingly shown that Marylanders don’t favor fracking.
“He wants to be on the right side of the issues, even if he has no belief in them,” Pinsky said.

“I think he found religion right before we were about to have a fracking ban on the floor of the Senate,” Pinsky said.  “It was a foxhole conversion.”

Still, though some questioned why he did it, fracking opponents welcomed his move. Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, called this “a day of historic importance,” suggesting that Hogan’s move could affect the nationwide debate over fracking.

“In short, he has done the right thing,” Tidwell said.

Sen. George Edwards, a Republican representing Western Maryland who supported fracking, said he only learned of the governor’s announcement as he drove home Friday afternoon.  Edwards said he had favored putting the issue to a county-by-county referendum.

“I think the people where this is going to take place ought to have a say whether to do it or not,” he said. A poll commissioned by the industry had shown strong support for gas extraction among voters in the region.

Edwards expressed frustration that Hogan had waited until now to take this stance.

“If that was what he was going to do, he should have done it sooner, to save all this argument back and forth between everybody,” the senator said.  Still, he added, “He’s got to do what he thinks he has to do. That kind of puts the end to it at this point.”

Staff writer Rona Kobell contributed to this article.