Maryland Becomes Latest State to Impose Restrictions on Fracking

May 30th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

UPDATE 6/8/15: On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a much-anticipated draft report, which focused on the impact fracking has on local drinking water supplies. But although the EPA report encompassed a broad range of peer-reviewed studies and state and federal data, it provided anything but a final say on the matter.

While acknowledging fracking's "potential to impact drinking water resources," the study concluded that there is no evidence suggesting that the practice "led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States." 

Both proponents and opponents of the practice felt it bolstered their stance, with oil companies and land-owners claiming that the report pulls the rug from under environmentalists' safety concerns, and activists claiming that the report whitewashed the issue, relying on much-used existing data that belies any claims to definitiveness. Either way, the report noted that fracking has grown dramatically over the past decade. 

"People who support drilling will see the report as a vindication. Opponents won't be impressed, though. They'll see it as a whitewash. I don't think it'll change a lot of minds on either side of the aisle or the table," Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford University told NPR's Jeff Brady on Sunday. 

Without coming down hard on fracking's impact, the report focused on areas of concern, largely related to the huge volumes of water used to frack wells, and that comes out toxic. Some of these included "water withdrawls in times of, of in areas with, low water availability; spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water; fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources; below ground migration of liquids and gases; and inadequate treatment and discharge of water," as Mother Jones noted. 

The five-year-long report comes amid turbulent disputes over fracking across the globe, but pointedly in the U.S., where the practice has grown in popularity in recent years. More and more states have moved to ban or at least restrict the practice recently, and the Obama administration had hopes that the study would provide a definitive voice to the conversation. But the study is likely to further entrench deeply-held notions on either side of the issue. 

Late last month, Maryland became the latest state to impose a moratorium on the natural oil and gas extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or colloquially, fracking.

It also marked the first time that a Republican governor allowed broad restrictions on the practice, as ThinkProgress reports. But the moratorium came about not through any discernable active environmentalism on the part of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, but instead, a hands-off allowance.

Earlier in the year, separate measures curbing fracking in the state passed both chambers of Maryland's legislature by wide margins. In the House bill, fracking would be put on hold for three years, while drillers would face strict, new legal standards under the Senate bill, where lawmakers deemed the practice "ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous[.]" Those measures sat on Hogan's desk, where observers feared for their survival given the governors's propensity to support fracking––when it can be done safely––and its related job growth in economically downtrodden western portions of his state.

But Hogan refused to act on the legislation, neither signing his approval, nor vetoing it, though observers point out that a veto might have been worthless anyway because the bill was passed in the legislature with margins large enough––103 to 33 in the House of Delegates; 45 to 2 in the Senate––to be considered veto-proof. Instead, Hogan decided to let the bills run their course and ultimately become law via a technicality.

"[Gov. Hogan] continues to support the safe and responsible development of energy to meet the current and future needs of citizens and to promote job growth in Western Maryland," Hogan's spokesman, Matt Clark, told the Washington Post.

Under the new law, the state will be barred from handing out fracking permits until October 2017, and the Department of the Environment will need to come up with regulations for the practice by October 2016. During that time, proponents say the state will have ample time to fully review the pros and cons of fracking in Maryland, whose natural Marcellus shale formations amount to what Hogan called an "economic gold mine."

"Now we have two years to continue to compile indisputable scientific data," one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Karen S. Montgomery (D), said in a statement.

Energy industry voices in the state predictably railed against the new legislation, complaining of unnecessary regulatory oversight and touting fracking's demonstrated benefits. "We think it unnecessarily draws out the regulatory process," Drew Cobbs of the Maryland Petroleum Council told the Washington Post. "Most Marylanders are already benefiting from shale development because of lower energy costs and cleaner air. Unfortunately, because of this delay, the folks in Western Maryland who could benefit from natural-gas development will have to wait to take advantage of this safe and proven technology."

But fracking opponents, while acknowledging benefits, see the costs outweighing the benefits, an imbalance environmentalists hope will reveal itself during the state's investigation. Before banning fracking last year, New York state drew on the conclusions of a similarly comprehensive public health and safety study of the industry's effects on its population. "I am relieved and delighted that Governor Hogan will allow mine and Delegate Fraser-Hidalgo's bill for a 2 year moratorium on fracking to become law without his signature," said Sen. Montgomery in a statement.

Former Gov. and 2016 presidential hopeful Martin O'Malley (D) put a de facto ban on fracking with a special commission studying the industry in 2011. The regulations that came out of the commission––including restricting some locations and addressing air pollution and drinking water contamination––have languished on Gov. Hogan's desk since. The new moratorium makes Maryland just the latest state to place a hold on the practice, echoing the concerns lawmakers in other states such as New York and Vermont, where the practice is banned, and in other states such as Florida, Colorado, California, and Michigan, which have seen repeated pushes for similar bans.

It will be interesting to watch how the EPA study will play out, and what effects it might have on states that have moved to ban or restrict the practice. As is usually the case, there will be litigation. 

For more information on the concerns over fracking and its benefits, check out ATTN:'s explainer.