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Lawmakers wade into debate over fracking in Western Maryland

Fracking fight: Lawmakers weigh bills to ban or delay gas extraction in Western Maryland.

Lawmakers in Annapolis are wading once again into the heated debate over whether to allow "fracking," or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, in Maryland.

Environmentalists and Western Maryland business owners and residents worried about fracking's risks are holding a rally outside the State House at noon Tuesday. They are pressing for legislative action to prevent the state from going ahead with the controversial drilling techinique.

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee is hearing bills that would either ban fracking outright (SB29) or put an eight-year hold on drilling permits (SB409). Another Senate committee heard a bill last week that would hold drilling companies strictly liable for any harm they caused (SB458).

Gov. Larry Hogan has said he believes fracking can be done safely, and he wants Western Maryland to get in on the economic benefits of the shale gas drilling boom that has swept neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The Maryland Department of the Environment is weighing adopting regulations that would permit fracking, ending a 3 1/2-year de facto moratorium while the state studied the issue. But opponents contend that the state's study did not take into account recent research raising more concerns about fracking's risks. 

Opponents of fracking want Maryland to follow the lead of New York, which banned drilling after concluding the risks to people's health and the environment were too great. Opponents also argue gas extraction would hurt tourism and outdoor recreation in Garrett County, two pillars of the local economy there.

A poll commissioned by Chesapeake Climate Action Network finds 43 percent of Marylanders favor a long-term hold on fracking, while 25 percent support an outright ban. Another recent poll by Goucher College found 45 percent against fracking, with 36 percent favoring, and nearly one in five undecided.

Drew Cobbs, director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, suggested the climate group's poll was skewed because those questioned were not informed that state regulators have concluded the risks of fracking can be managed "to an acceptable level" if the state can "rigorously monitor" and enforce compliance with best drilling practices.

Western Maryland lawmakers, many farmers and other businesses contend that fracking can be done safely if properly regulated. They have formed their own coalition to push for gas extraction. They complain, however, that some of the rules put forward by the outgoing O'Malley administration go too far, and could discourage any gas companies from wanting to drill in the state.

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