Environmentalists concerned about shale gas drilling in Maryland returned to Annapolis Wednesday to try again for a legislative moratorium on "fracking," as the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing is called.
Waving signs and chanting "Protect us from fracking," activists huddled in Lawyers Mall in front of the State House just before the opening of the 90-day session of the General Assembly. Speaker after speaker called for lawmakers to block any drilling in Maryland until studies determine if it can be done safely.
The moratorium bid - one of the environmental community's top legislative priorities - has failed in previous years, at least partly because the state has had a de facto fracking ban since 2011. That's when Gov. Martin O'Malley ordered a commission to study the technique. The panel is expected to finish its work this summer, though, and activists want to bar any drilling for another 18 months after that, to give legislators time to see that adequate safeguards are put in place once the panel's recommendations are in.
Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat who has championed concerns about fracking's impact, greeted the rally and drew cheers.
Activists have voiced wide-ranging concerns about fracking, including its potential to contaminate ground- and surface water. Regulators in other states have generally failed to find more than isolated problems, but opponents have suggested the industry has avoided close scrutiny elsewhere.
In hopes of corralling more legislative support, activists have pointed out that the issue is not limited to western Maryland, where energy companies have leased land to drill for gas locked in a Marcellus shale formation deep under Garrett and part of Allegany counties.
Other potentially gas-bearing deposits have been identified in central and southern Maryland, they said. There have been news reports that a Texas energy company has leased 80,000 acres in Virginia over the Taylorsville Basin, one such deposit that stretches across the Potomac River as far north as Anne Arundel County.
"We could be bringing fracking to every corner of the state if we don't hit the pause button," Mizeur said.
Industry representatives and supporters warn that if the state delays much longer, western Maryland may miss out on the gas-drilling boom that has swept neighboring states.
Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, dismissed activists' attempts to portray fracking as a statewide issue. He noted that the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated gas prospects in other parts of the state are miniscule by comparison with the energy locked in the Marcellus shale in the west.
Activists counter that 10 years ago no one foresaw the rush to get at the Marcellus gas that occurred four and five years ago, and no one expected the complaints that drilling elsewhere has provoked.
"We need better science; we need more science," said Eric Robison, a founder of Citizen Shale, a western Maryland group concerned about drilling there. "We need to have a better understanding before we jump into this."
Activists also rallied in Annapolis against a related project in southern Maryland. Dominion, a Virginia-based energy company, is seeking approval to convert a liquefield natural gas terminal it has at Cove Point in Calvert County into one that would export the fuel worldwide via the Chesapeake Bay. Activists say the facility would ship gas extracted via fracking, and are demanding a comprehnsive study of the environmental impacts, including its air emissions.
Opponents could claim an ally in Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who wrote the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this week saying the project should undergo a a more detailed environmental impact study than it's getting.
But the project has powerful supporters, including labor unions and many elected officials in southern Maryland. Dominion says building the export facility would generate 3,000 construction jobs and $3.8 billion in investment. The company brought local officials, business executives and labor officials to Annapolis this week to make its case; union members spent Wednesday buttonholing lawmakers to express their backing.
There is no pending legislation affecting the terminal project, but it is in the courts. Lawyers for Dominion and the Sierra Club squared off Wednesday before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals over whether the environmental group should have any say in the terminal project.
Dominion has a longstanding agreement to consult Sierra and a Maryland environmental group over expansion of the terminal, and Sierra objected to the export plan. But a Calvert County Circuit Court judge ruled that the company had the right to proceed with its plan - a decision that Sierra now seeks to have overturned.