From “fracking” to oysters to clean energy, environmentalists had multiple reasons to smile when Maryland’s lawmakers wrapped up their work in Annapolis earlier this week.
With a boost from Gov. Larry Hogan, the General Assembly made Maryland the first state with known natural gas reserves to pass legislation prohibiting hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract it. Over Hogan’s opposition, legislators also barred, at least for now, the harvesting of oysters from the state’s Chesapeake Bay sanctuaries. And they pushed through a series of bills promoting renewable energy, energy efficiency and electric vehicles.
Overall, environmental activists said they saw more of their legislative priorities realized in the 90-day session that ended at midnight Monday than they had the year before, when they got only about half of what they were seeking.
“The environmental community has reason to celebrate,” said Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in an email sent to the nonprofit’s members.
“We didn’t get everything we wanted,” noted Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. “But we made a lot of gains and progress. The environment got a lot of attention from the governor and General Assembly.”
Raettig attributed the uptick of environmental legislation in part to increased activism, particularly on fracking. But she said anxiety about the threatened rollbacks of federal regulation and funding by the Trump administration also may have helped.
“I think that Marylanders and Maryland elected officials know that the protections are not going to be coming from the federal government anytime soon, so really it takes more leadership,” she said.
The biggest environmental issue, arguably, was the fracking ban. The vote in late March ended six years of debate over whether to permit it in Western Maryland, the only part of the state with readily accessible gas reserves.
The controversial fracturing technique, which involves pumping large quantities of water, sand and chemicals deep underground, has spurred a boom in gas production across the United States, including neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia. But it’s also sparked a rash of complaints about spills, air and water pollution and contaminated wells. A growing body of research has linked the activity to earthquakes and a variety of health threats.
Hogan had supported fracking, arguing that if it could be done safely, it could bring jobs to economically depressed Western Maryland. But after the ban passed the House overwhelmingly and pressure built in the Senate to act, the governor switched positions and endorsed the ban, saying that he’d become convinced it posed an unacceptable health and environmental risk. New York has banned fracking by executive order, while Vermont lawmakers enacted a symbolic ban, as that state has no gas reserves.
Lawmakers bucked opposition from the Hogan administration, meanwhile, to impose a moratorium on opening any of the state’s 51 oyster sanctuaries to commercial harvesting. That vote in late March came in response to a plan drafted by the Department of Natural Resources to open some areas put off-limits to harvest seven years ago. Watermen said they wanted to try a new “rotational harvest” plan in some sanctuaries where oysters didn’t appear to be thriving. But environmentalists urged legislators to block any changes until the DNR determines how many oysters the state has and what’s a sustainable harvest level. That study is required by December 2018, though it may be finished sooner.
The Hogan administration opposed the sanctuary bill, contending it undercut the work of its Oyster Advisory Commission, which has been meeting monthly since last summer and debating possible changes to the sanctuaries. But the moratorium passed with a veto-proof majority, and the governor let it become law without his signature.
When the Assembly session began in January, lawmakers were worried about how to close a projected $400 million revenue gap. They managed to craft a $43.5 billion state budget without slashing Bay restoration and other environmental programs. There were exceptions — the state’s Natural Resources Police lost funding for the helicopter it had recently reacquired to help it catch poachers and assist with search-and-rescue missions. Legislators did provide funding, though, to hire more environmental inspectors, aiming to reverse a long-term shrinkage in enforcement and compliance staffing. And they stuck to last year’s agreement to fully fund Program Open Space over the long term, ending repeated raids during previous budget pinches.
A flock of bills passed with at least some potential impact for the Bay. A few expanded the use of the state’s Bay Restoration Fund, which was begun in 2004 to finance upgrades to wastewater treatment plants and the installation of less-polluting household septic systems. One change proposed by Hogan, the Clean Water Commerce Act, authorizes spending from $4 million to $10 million annually over the next four years on competitively bid, cost-effective nutrient pollution reduction measures. Another permits spending on upgrades of smaller treatment plants, while yet another reimburses localities if they spent their own funds on overhauls.
Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said those bills marked a significant milestone: “It celebrated the fact that Maryland had used its dedicated funds to retrofit its largest sewage treatment plants, and now could begin redirecting the money to the next tier of important work.”
The legislature’s Democratic majority also pushed through a resolution opposing the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate federal funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program and slash the Bay-related efforts of other agencies. They warned that such “drastic cuts” would jeopardize the restoration progress made to date.
Other measures of note that passed:
- Energy: Lawmakers overrode a Hogan veto of a renewable energy bill that passed last year. The measure commits Maryland to getting 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, with at least 2.5 percent from solar power. The old goal was 20 percent by 2022, with 2 percent from solar. They also passed a bill committing to increasing energy efficiency efforts, and another one sponsored by Hogan that extends, through 2020, tax breaks for plug-in electric vehicles and recharging stations.
- Antibiotics: Legislation aimed at limiting the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals passed, though in watered-down form. Non-therapeutic use of the drugs contributes to antibiotic-resistant infections in humans and may also affect fish and wildlife, advocates say. The practice is already on the decline in the Bay region among major poultry producers, though, and the Food and Drug Administration has imposed restrictions nationally. Even so, Maryland becomes the second state in the nation, after California, to regulate farm animal antibiotic use. Lawmakers dropped a provision requiring farmers to report their use of antibiotics, after growers complained it was unnecessary and duplicative of federal requirements.
- Cownose rays: Legislators voted to stop bowfishing tournaments aimed at killing cownose rays, responding to outrage from animal-rights advocates over videos showing rays, including pregnant females and their pups, being shot with arrows, bludgeoned and suffocated. Rays have been considered pests by watermen and aquaculturists because they can feed on oysters and other shellfish, but recent research has rebutted an earlier study blaming the animals for depleting the Bay’s oyster population. The bill imposes a moratorium through July 1, 2019, on bowfishing contests to kill cownose rays, and requires the DNR to develop a fisheries management plan for rays by Dec. 31, 2018.
- Seafood marketing: Responsibility for promoting Maryland’s seafood shifted from the Department of Natural Resources back to the Department of Agriculture, from which it had been taken six years ago. The administration sponsored the legislation at the behest of watermen and the seafood industry.
Some Bay-related bills pushed by environmentalists failed to pass, leaving advocates to hope they may fare better next year after further study. Among them:
- Septics: Legislation failed to pass that would have restored a requirement to use “best available technology” on all new or replacement septic systems in the state. That would have reversed a Hogan administration decision last year to lift the requirement statewide and only mandate it in the “Critical Area” of land bordering the Bay and its tidal tributaries. The Senate approved a bill that didn’t change the Hogan policy but instead tinkered with the financial help the state offers for installing the less polluting but costlier systems; it would have given new homes in the Critical Area higher priority for such assistance than they get now. That measure died in the House, which plans to study the issue this summer.
- Forest conservation: A bill aimed at tightening Maryland’s forest conservation law passed the Senate but died in the House. Though the legislature set a goal in 2013 of no net loss of forestland in the state, current law requires only a quarter-acre acre of trees be planted for every acre cleared.
- Plastics: Legislation that would have phased out the use of polystyrene in food packaging failed to pass either chamber but is slated for summer study by the House Environment and Transportation Committee.
(As originally posted, this story mischaracterized Assembly action on septic systems. The Bay Journal regrets the error.)
Staff writer Rona Kobell contributed to this story.