As Hogan signs fracking ban, environmentalists question his record

Environmentalists cheered Tuesday as Gov. Larry Hogan followed through on his promise to sign a statewide fracking ban — and some predicted that Maryland's action could bolster efforts in other states to prohibit the controversial method of drilling for natural gas.

"We already know this victory is inspiring folks who are pushing for a ban in Florida," said Mitch Jones, a senior policy advocate for Food and Water Watch. Florida's legislature is weighing bills to ban fracking, and activists are hoping to stop or curtail fracking in Pennsylvania and California.

While New York has banned fracking by executive order, Maryland is the first state where fracking is geologically possible to prohibit the practice in law.

Environmentalists have been fighting for a ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas from underground shale formations — a practice they say has the ability to taint drinking water wells and pollute the air and water.

They found an unexpected ally this year in the Republican governor, who announced his support just as the advocates appeared to reach a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly.

"What Maryland has done here, with Larry Hogan's support, is not just to protect Maryland but will help protect other states," said Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

The stakes in Maryland were relatively low: The rush by drilling companies to secure land for fracking has passed, at least for now. As the price of natural gas has dropped, Maryland looked increasingly unattractive for fracking.

Drew Cobbs, executive director of the pro-drilling Maryland Petroleum Council called it "more symbolic than anything else" and compared it to a ban that passed in Vermont, where there are no stores of natural gas that could be fracked.

Despite their victory, environmentalists remain skeptical about Hogan, who they say has a mixed record on environmental issues. "The governor's record has been a mixed bag," said Josh Tulkin, executive director of the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter.

Hogan has supported some environmental causes that have won him praise.

In addition to signing the ban on fracking, last year he signed an extension of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, which requires the state to keep working to reduce emissions that lead to climate change.

He has also sufficiently funded Chesapeake Bay programs in the state, they say, and has stopped the practice of other governors of raiding open space and land preservation funds to balance the budget.

Hogan also reached a compromise with Democrats, farmers and environmentalists on rules limiting the use of nutrient-rich chicken manure as fertilizer on farm fields — an issue that was disputed during his first two months in office.

Beyond that, environmental and clean energy advocates struggle to find plaudits for the governor.

They'd like him to publicly oppose President Donald Trump's proposal to eliminate the federal Chesapeake Bay Program, a $73 million budget cut.

While most acknowledge the likelihood of Trump's proposal being enacted is slim, just the thought of wiping out the program was of deep concern. Hogan's staff has said he's raised the issue with Maryland's members of Congress, but the governor has not made any public statements about the proposed cuts.

"His voice publicly would add a significant one that is not there right now," said Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We've had Virginia weigh in, we had Pennsylvania weigh in. Here we have a Republican governor with the most to win or lose from a clean bay."

And Hogan has rolled back some environmental regulations, Prost said.

Because of Hogan's actions, it's easier for farmers to spread manure on fallow fields in the winter —even on frozen ground — and there are looser requirements for controlling stormwater runoff from construction sites. The governor also reversed a requirement that new homes far away from the water must use the same pollution-removal septic systems as those next to the water.

And Hogan vetoed a bill last year that would have set new goals and deadlines for renewable energy, on the grounds that it's a burden to taxpayers because it drives up electric bills by a few dollars. State lawmakers overrode the renewable energy veto in the first weeks of this year's General Assembly session.

A spokesman for the governor defended his environmental decisions.

"The governor's environmental record is incredible and balanced," said Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan. "He will continue working to protect our most precious natural resources."

Environmentalists say the governor's positions have, at times, been contradictory and difficult to predict. For example, Hogan supported the greenhouse gas emissions goals, but vetoed the renewable energy standards — which are a key way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"What we look for in the governor is environmental leadership. It's been challenging, because sometimes, his actions aren't consistent," said Josh Tulkin, executive director of the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter.

But environmentalists think Hogan responds to public opinion, which gives them an opening to sway the influence the governor.

"The fact he does respond means we have the opportunity to move him," said Jones of Food and Water Watch.

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.

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