Environmental activists met Saturday at the University of Baltimore to organize a push for a legislative ban on the natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — casting the issue as a fight pitting the little guys versus the lobbyists.
Del. Heather R. Mizeur told the crowd of about 200 activists that she wanted Maryland to show others that they can hold the gas industry accountable before drilling starts, rather than trying to clean up after any environmental problems.
"With fracking, we have the opportunity to make sure that damage never happens," the Montgomery County Democrat said.
Fracking is already on hold in the state after Gov. Martin O'Malley issued an executive order requiring a 14-member commission to produce a report on its potential effects. But environmentalists want to enshrine the moratorium in law and give the General Assembly the final say on whether drilling permits should be issued once the study is completed.
Fracking involves extracting natural gas by pumping in large quantities of water, sand and chemicals to break up shale deep underground.
Mizeur said she thinks gas drilling companies are hoping to run out the clock on the commission, which is struggling with a lack of funds, and said the law is necessary to show that "no studies mean no fracking."
Drew Cobbs, the executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said in an interview that the gas industry is happy to work through the commission process but will oppose attempts to pass a moratorium.
"They're just trying to put more hurdles and obstacles up," he said of the activists. "Their ultimate goal is to stop it completely."
Mizeur said in an interview that she was not attempting to "prejudge" the outcome of the study, but, in response to an audience member's question, she did list an extensive set of concerns — including air and water pollution — that she would want to see addressed before giving the OK to drilling.
The politics of getting a bill passed could also be tricky. The activists at the conference blamed lobbyists for the failure of a similar measure in the last session, but they also face the challenge of persuading delegates and senators from across the state to take action on an issue that mostly affects Western Maryland.
People like Nadine Grabania, who runs a winery in Garrett County, where much of the proposed drilling would take place, and Crede Calhoun, who operates a tourism business there, said they expect to feel the effects of any gas production directly, but for many at the conference, the issue was more remote.
And at a panel on how to get a moratorium passed, a questioner pointed out that the attendees Saturday were overwhelmingly white, while the constituents of Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, are more diverse.
Organizers for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Interfaith Power and Light, a religious group, acknowledged the problem and said they are trying to make inroads with Baltimore voters.
Cobbs said the prospects for fracking in Maryland in the near future are dim in any case because gas prices are relatively low. But should they rise, he estimated that gas could contribute $300 million a year to the economy of Western Maryland and expects the commission could find ways to regulate the intensity of fracking activity to balance environmental and economic demands.
The activist groups plan to press their case early next year. On the first day of the legislative session, they will challenge lawmakers to a "fracking water taste test," presenting them glasses of water taken from a well half a mile from a drilling site and asking them to drink it.