During this presidential election season, we Americans may not agree on everything. But one thing we do agree on is this: Only through democracy and open debate can we hope to solve our toughest challenges as a nation.
Unfortunately, here in Maryland, that democratic process has been missing in the face of one of the biggest pollution threats our state has ever faced: hydraulic "fracking" for natural gas. Even as tap water catches on fire in neighboring Pennsylvania and earthquakes have been strongly linked to the fracking process in Ohio, the Maryland chapter of the American Petroleum Institute has been winning its efforts to shut down meaningful debate over these threats here at home. Armed with expensive lobbyists, its shocking goal has been to make sure the state does not designate funding to carefully study the potential threats posed to Western Maryland and the rest of the state from fracking.
That's right — with money and backroom access, the oil and gas industry has blocked the General Assembly from even studying the issue. I say: Enough is enough. In January, I will introduce legislation to create a statutory moratorium on all fracking activity in Maryland. This moratorium will stay in place until and unless we have a science-based review of all the safety risks involved. Once those studies are complete, the General Assembly would take a final vote on whether to go forward with this drilling practice.
In short, my legislation would guarantee that debate, facts and democracy determine the fate of fracking in Maryland. That's in contrast to the oil and gas industry approach which, to date, relies on money, lobbying and subverted democracy, all of which lead in the direction of guaranteed pollution.
The gas industry wants you to believe that fracking is perfectly safe. We've been bombarded with slick newspaper and TV ads about "clean natural gas" promising new jobs and greater energy independence. What the ads do not mention — but what the media have revealed — are the broken towns and farms and families left in the wake of this process in every state that has opened the door widely: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arkansas, Wyoming, West Virginia and others. When you drill a mile deep and inject explosives, water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals into the earth to force up methane gas, there are many consequences. Methane gets into drinking water, toxins get into rivers, industrial-scale well pads get into rural towns, and even the earth itself shakes, according to the latest estimates of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Thankfully, there are no fracking wells yet in Maryland, but the industry is pounding at our door. In 2011, as gas companies rushed in to lease mineral rights to a whopping one-quarter of the surface of Garret County alone, Gov. Martin O'Malley established a special commission to look into safety concerns surrounding fracking. The commission was tasked with reporting back to the General Assembly with a comprehensive set of studies. These studies would determine what "best practices" (if any) could prevent the fracking horrors experienced elsewhere.
The only problem is, the governor's fracking commission — of which I am a member — does not have dedicated resources to fund these studies. So last March, the House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly to attach a small fee to fracking leases in Maryland, just enough (about $2 million) to fund the necessary safety studies.
What happened next? The gas industry and its lobbyists, in a series of discreet phone calls and closed-door meetings, pressured key leaders in the Senate to keep the bill from ever coming up for a vote in committee.
So I say: Fine. If the gas industry doesn't want Maryland studying the safety risks associated with fracking, then there should be no fracking. Let's put an official, statutory moratorium in place and wait. Polling shows 71 percent of Marylanders agree that such studies are needed before drilling commences. And my legislation will be clear: Once these studies — as enumerated in the governor's June 2011 executive order on fracking — are finally funded, and they lay out the drilling methods and pollution measures needed to keep our people safe, then the General Assembly can decide to lift the moratorium and adopt these science-based standards.
Although a "de facto" moratorium on drilling has existed for the life of the proposed commission studies, as long as no statutory moratorium on drilling exists, the state remains unprotected from the influence of powerful drilling interests and potential lawsuits to force the state to issue drilling permits.
Is my proposal a radical step? Not at all. A state-level moratorium is a reasonable, methodical and thoughtful approach. What's radical is allowing a fossil fuel special interest to thrust upon us — without full democratic input — a drilling method that is associated with temblors and benzene-contaminated water in virtually every state where it's been tried.
Our state has a long history of using sound reasoning and the democratic process to make good choices. Let's continue that tradition as a new energy challenge knocks on our door.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun