Maryland lawmakers gave final approval Friday to a more than two-year fracking ban, marking the legislature's most aggressive move yet to curb the controversial natural gas extraction process.
The legislation forbids drilling any wells until October 2017, and also requires the state to enact regulations next year to monitor the practice.
The plan drew accolades from opponents of hydraulic fracturing. They hope it gives them more time to build a case against the practice. But fracking supporters praised the legislation as well, saying it sets a clear timetable for when drilling could begin.
Gov. Larry Hogan has not said if he will sign the bill, which passed both chambers by veto-proof margins. The governor has said he supports fracking as a way to bring jobs to economically depressed Western Maryland as long as the process can been done safely.
Environmentalists had backed another bill that would have imposed a three-year moratorium and called for further study of the health and environmental impacts of fracking, but lawmakers instead passed a compromise that grants a shorter moratorium and forgoes another study.
"Two years is not enough, and we know that," Sen. Karen S. Montgomery, who introduced a moratorium bill, said. She wanted a 10-year ban to gather enough data to conclusively determine the health impacts of fracking operations in other states, and said she reluctantly agreed to two years.
"It is better than nothing, but we need to be aware of what we're unleashing on Maryland," said Montgomery, a Democrat from Montgomery County.
Mitch Jones, a member of the Don't Frack Maryland Coalition, said his group plans to redouble its efforts to persuade lawmakers next year to extend the moratorium. Fracking opponents say it has been linked to groundwater contamination, earthquakes and other environmental damage elsewhere in the country.
Several fracking supporters who had previously opposed a moratorium dropped their opposition to this one, including Republican lawmakers from Western Maryland and the chair of the Senate's environmental affairs committee, Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat.
The ban "really doesn't do that much damage to Western Maryland," said Del. Wendell R. Beitzel, a Garrett County Republican. Beitzel voted for the moratorium "to the shock and surprise of many," he said.
Part of the reason: Maryland regulations are expected to require enough planning and environmental testing that it would take roughly two years to prepare a drilling permit application. The moratorium also sets into a law a clear deadline for fracking regulations that have been delayed for years.
Beitzel said it will take at least that long to persuade drilling companies to take a second look at acquiring leases in the state.
"Most of the companies have been getting the message that they're not really welcome here," he said.
Maryland has no fracking applications pending and had operated under a de facto moratorium for more than three years. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who left office in January, spent several years developing fracking regulations that he introduced a month before his term ended — not enough time to put them into effect.
Hogan has not enacted the regulations proposed by O'Malley.
The country has seen a boom in fracking wells as new technology has allowed natural gas drillers to reach deposits previously considered too costly to extract. Many of those deposits sit beneath the Marcellus shale formation that stretches along the Appalachian Mountains from West Virginia to New York.
The boom has also contributed to falling natural gas prices. Fracking industry leaders say that with prices so low, they don't believe there will be a rush to drill in Maryland.
Billy Bishoff, a Western Maryland farmer eager for fracking to begin, said he's "perfectly happy" to wait another 21/2 years to get the right regulations in place.
"Taking the time to do this right, I'm OK with that. If we'd embarked on another eight-year study moratorium, I would not be OK with that," Bishoff said.
Ann Bristow, a health educator from Western Maryland who served on O'Malley's advisory commission, said that while she had hoped for a longer halt to fracking, this moratorium still allows more time to study the potential health impacts of the practice in Maryland.
"It seems to me like we got what we wanted and time is on everybody's side," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.