Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal, its board or staff.
Next week, on Feb. 28, the Health, Education and Environmental Affairs Committee in the Maryland Senate will take up legislation dealing with shale gas drilling (fracking). For public safety, economic and environmental reasons, we believe the technology should not be allowed in Maryland.
Nearly three out of four senators have indicated a willingness to extend the current fracking moratorium, set to expire in October. This suggests they recognize that gas drilling will not be the economic bonanza that supporters have claimed since 2011, when the mountains above Marcellus Shale deposits in Western Maryland were first targeted.
Two bills are pending. One bans fracking altogether, while the other extends the moratorium for two years — though it departs from the current moratorium by permitting fracking in counties that approve it by referendum. On the ban bill, 23 of the Senate’s 33 Democrats are co-sponsors; the moratorium bill has 24 co-sponsors, including several Republicans.
In the House of Delegates, leadership declared long ago that a frack-free Maryland was its preference. A ban bill is advancing, and there is no moratorium bill. After committee hearings, legislation may go to the floor of each chamber for further debate. If the House and Senate don’t pass the same bill, some sort of compromise is required before any legislation can be approved and sent to the governor for his consideration.
About three-fourths of Marylanders already live in a place where local elected officials have created anti-fracking laws or resolutions. But fracking is regulated by the state. So, for those who’ve worked for six legislative sessions on the issue, the “heavy lift” is in the Maryland Senate.
Unlike neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Maryland did not rush into fracking. Successive administrations studied the technology, then overhauled outdated regulations. Meanwhile, energy prices continued to fall. The industry allowed nearly all of its original sub-surface mineral leases purchased last decade to lapse.
Furthermore, Maryland lacks the large-scale deposits, pipeline and processing infrastructure, and interest from industry (in the form of leased mineral rights) needed to make large-scale fracking financially feasible today. Yet we can’t rule out a change of circumstances that drives up fossil fuel prices — setting set off a new round of leasing that leads to fracking in years ahead.
Meanwhile, mounting problems elsewhere show the technology cannot be effectively regulated. In Pennsylvania recently, investigators from Public Herald, an investigative journalism nonprofit, dug up previously undisclosed citizen complaints about water contamination from fracking. Their work took years. Far from regulators’ 280-odd citations against industry, Public Herald found some 4,100 complaint filings — all told, one official complaint for nearly every well drilled. There’s more. It appears that the vast majority were never investigated. Then unresolved original complaints were shredded. Hundreds of state law violations were documented, and Flint, Mich.-style government criminality is a possibility.
In recent weeks in Western Maryland, many residents were infuriated by the Senate president’s public remarks that “there are no jobs whatsoever” in that part of the state. In fact, the unemployment rate in Western Maryland in 2016 was almost identical to the state average, and lower than some counties. Long gone are the days that Mountain Maryland depended overly on extractive energy and assembly line work.
Tourism and vacation real estate provide about half of all jobs and two-thirds of Garrett County’s tax base. Some of the highest-value rural real estate in the eastern United States lines the shores of Deep Creek Lake — second only to Ocean City as a vacation destination for Marylanders. Generations have visited and created the magical memories that many families cherish forever.
To state the obvious, nowhere in the world do fracking and world-class tourism mix. That’s why in Florida right now, with Republicans in charge, the legislature is considering a fracking ban. Florida’s economy is Deep Creek’s, writ large.
Additionally, fracking is “anti-business”: While a few short-term jobs may be created, most Western Marylanders — like others in a state where the solar industry grew 40 percent in 2015 — prefer small-business ownership, with sustainable economic investments in tourism, agriculture and green energy.
Mountainside solar installations are burgeoning. Indeed, Western Marylanders want the same future as the rest of the state. Most polls show that a strong majority of Garrett and Allegany county residents want the fracking ban that Marylanders as a whole support.
Is this another “jobs versus environment” debate? Not at all. Nationally, less than 10 percent of jobs on a well-pad are unionized. Along with embalmers and theater projectionists, zero petroleum engineers belong to unions.
The Laborers International Union recently came out in support of fracking and staged a rally in Annapolis. In a union with a proud tradition of training workers in emerging industries, wouldn’t organizing solar-industry installers sustain and grow its membership?
Finally, there’s the matter of fracking’s effect on global climate change. Farmers statewide are already feeling the effects of erratic precipitation, unpredictable freezes and bigger storms. This year, the annual “Winterfest” festival in Oakland, Md. (the state’s “snowiest” town) was postponed due to spring-like weather.
Scientists agree that fossil fuel combustion is driving planetary warming. And new scientific analysis confirms that fracked gas is nearly as bad as coal for the atmosphere. That’s because, before it is burned at distant power plants or on your stovetop, natural gas (mostly methane) is constantly leaking from wellheads, pipelines and compressor stations. Estimates of leakage vary from about 2 percent of production to more than 10 percent. Overall, carbon dioxide is a more potent greenhouse gas, but in the short-term — measured in 20-year periods —methane is orders of magnitude more detrimental. So the life-cycle warming impact of gas rivals coal. To save our climate, we have to steadily move off of gas, not increase its use through reckless fracking.
For Maryland’s economy, health and environment, we need to ban fracking once and for all. This drilling method will never be safe. We have all of the data we need on that. Now we just need the political will of our leaders in Annapolis to finally do the right thing.