Natural gas companies may be looking only at far Western Maryland to extract the fuel via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but opponents stressed to Harford County residents Wednesday that ill effects to the environment and public health could be felt throughout the state if a two-year moratorium ends in October.
Harford County Climate Action partnered with the Harford County League of Women Voters and Harford Community College's Environmental Club to put on a three-hour long community forum, which included a panel discussion and question-and-answer session about fracking.
"We feel that the damage that fracking would cause is something that the rest of the state will end up paying for when the fracking boom is over," Tracey Waite, a Bel Air resident and president of Harford County Climate Action, said after the forum.
Legislation to permanently ban the process, which involves injecting water mixed with chemicals deep underground to break up shale formations and release natural gas, was approved by the Maryland House of Delegates last Friday, 97-40.
House Bill 1325 has moved to the Senate, according to the Maryland General Assembly website.
Panel members encouraged those in attendance to contact their state senators, including those who represent Harford County — Republicans Robert Cassilly, Wayne Norman and J.B. Jennings.
"Encourage [your senators] to vote for a ban if it makes it to the floor of the Senate, and we think it will make it," Paul Roberts, board president of Citizen Shale and a resident of Garrett County, told the audience of about 55 people gathered in a meeting room in Edgewood Hall on Harford Community College's Bel Air campus.
Some of the concern locally about fracking in Harford County stems from drilling for gas that already takes place in northern Pennsylvania and southern New York within the Susquehanna River watershed. The river is a major drinking water source for the county.
Part of the gas-rich Marcellus shale formation is under Garrett and Allegany counties, which would be Ground Zero for natural gas drilling in Maryland.
While that area of the state doesn't have any geographic relationship to the Susquehanna Basin, there are other ways that the environment and public health could be adversely affected, the fracking opponents warned.
The negative effects of the process, which have been documented in about 900 peer-reviewed studies, could be felt statewide through air and water pollution from the drilling sites, not to mention transporting the fuel miles away from the wells through pipelines, compressor stations, processing plants and liquid natural gas terminals at the state's ports, according to Dr. Gina Angiola, a board member of the Baltimore-based Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility.
She noted the term fracking can either refer to just the drilling process, or "as shorthand for the entire life cycle of unconventional gas development," and she is concerned with the latter.
"I'm bound and determined to do whatever I can to work with others to keep fracking out of our state," Angiola said.
She said the bulk of the findings from research conducted on the ill effects of fracking, which is allowed in the neighboring states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, has been published in the past two years. She noted those findings, which document cases of leukemia in children who live near wells, thousands of spills of hazardous chemicals and even earthquakes in Pennsylvania that state officials have linked to fracking, validates complaints people have made in the past.
"It's pretty clear to me that no regulations that can protect us," Angiola said.
Fracking proponents have stated the process can spur economic development and job growth in regions that need it, as well as energy independence.
Martin Reisinger, a resident of Lutherville who owns property in Garrett County, strongly rebutted those claims. He noted natural gas drilling, like other fossil fuel industries, is prone to "boom or bust" cycles, creates few permanent jobs, lowers local property values and disrupts other local industries.
He said Garrett County is the second-most popular tourism destination in Maryland, after Ocean City.
Reisinger runs the website http://www.frackingfact.com, which should not be confused with a pro-fracking site, Fracking Facts.
He took much of his economic data from a 2014 study conducted by Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute.
Audience member Dr. Deanna Killoran, a resident of Bel Air and a physician who practices at Aberdeen Proving Ground, said people who allow natural gas companies to lease their property for drilling risk getting almost no money for the lease and often have to sign non-disclosure agreements that prohibit them from talking about any problems related to fracking.
Roberts and Angiola backed up Killoran.
"Leasing is a predatory industry; it [needs] people who don't know what going on, to be taken advantage of," Roberts said.
Towns support each other
More than 200 miles separate Bel Air from the town of Friendsville, in the northwestern corner of Garrett County near the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders, but the Bel Air Board of Town commissioners have expressed their support for a ban in Maryland.
Harford County Climate Action held a rally at the Bel Air Town Hall in December, and all five commissioners signed a Jan. 31 letter expressing the town's support for a ban.
Bel Air Mayor Susan Burdette was among the panel speakers at Wednesday's forum.
"We want to partner with small towns and cities in Western Maryland," Burdette said.
She cited Friendsville, which passed an ordinance against fracking in the town limits last year, as an example of the Western Maryland towns that need the support of other communities.
She noted "water is very fragile" to that town's residents.
Municipalities and counties throughout Maryland have taken actions against fracking similar to Bel Air.
"We might need Western Maryland some day, as they need our support now," Burdette said.
Roberts, of Citizen Shale, was a citizen representative on a state commission established under former Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley to study whether or not fracking could be done safely in Maryland — that commission endorsed fracking, with regulations — and he has spent recent weeks in Annapolis lobbying legislators to support a permanent ban.
"This is about getting Democrats to do what we want the Democratic Party to do," he said, as Democrats control the House and Senate.
Angiola stressed a ban on fracking is a non-partisan issue.
"This is a public health issue and an environmental issue, and people should just do the right thing," she said.