Fracking ban moves forward in Maryland House, fate in Senate unclear

Fracking ban moves forward in House, fate in Senate unclear.

The House of Delegates is poised to approve a bill to ban fracking for natural gas, but the measure won't move forward in the state Senate unless supporters can get a veto-proof majority, a key senator said Wednesday.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said she supports a fracking ban but it doesn't make sense to pass one if Gov. Larry Hogan is going to veto it.

Hogan has said he supports fracking if it can be done safely. He has not weighed in on the bill before the General Assembly. Conway said if Hogan were to veto the bill, supporters don't have enough votes to override.

"People can't add," she said. "I'm saying veto-proof your bill, and I'll let you do whatever you want."

Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, said she has no plans to schedule a committee vote on the fracking ban bill until then.

Otherwise, she supports pushing for another moratorium — something she's confident can win enough support to overcome any veto.

"You have to be careful what you ask for," she said.

If a ban or moratorium is not enacted, fracking is set to become legal in Maryland later this year, after being delayed for years due to concerns over the safety of the drilling practice.

The gas-rich Marcellus shale formation extends from New York through Western Maryland and to Ohio and West Virginia.

Opponents of fracking — which is technically called hydraulic fracturing — have raised concerns that the drilling could lead to contamination in groundwater and local streams, and could also spur earthquakes.

Hogan's administration has proposed regulations that would govern the gas drilling industry if drilling goes forward. Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said they are the "most protective and comprehensive" regulations in the country.

"If hydraulic fracturing ever comes to western Maryland, these rigorous regulations will be in place beforehand to help ensure safe and responsible energy development," Grumbles said in a statement.

Advocates for the fracking ban say they're getting close to securing the 29 votes necessary to override a possible veto. The bill has 23 co-sponsors among the 47 members of the Senate.

"We have 24 votes at least. We are close to, and believe we can get, 29 votes," said Josh Tulkin, director of the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter. "We believe that we have the momentum and she will bring the bill out of committee."

Jackie Filson, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, said the momentum from the House of Delegates could help win over senators. The House is poised to approve a fracking ban by the end of the week after a preliminary vote on Wednesday.

"There is overwhelming support from Maryland delegates and that can help sway the Senate side," Filson said.

Supporters of drilling continue to hope that they can block any moratorium or ban on fracking.

Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said the proposed regulations will put more than 90 percent of Garrett County off-limits to fracking. And where fracking could take place, the regulations will ensure the work is done safely.

Cobbs said it's no surprise that the House is likely to ban fracking. He's focused on the Senate, where he said "at least they were open minded and more willing to listen."

If fracking isn't banned, it's not clear if companies will apply to drill in Maryland. Many drilling leases in Western Maryland have expired as the state has wrangled with whether to allow the practice and how to regulate it.

The market for natural gas also is not strong, leading some companies to put off plans to drill in Maryland, Cobbs said.

pwood@baltsun.com

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