Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed funding the state's study of "fracking" for natural gas, ending a two-year legislative standoff over getting the industry to pay for it.
O'Malley included $1.5 million in his fiscal 2014 budget "to provide citizens, business leaders and policymakers the research and data they need to fully consider the potential economic and ecological impacts of natural gas extraction in Maryland," according to a summary of the spending plan released by the governor's office.
Of that, $1 million is to go to his "Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative," launched in 2011, in which a commission O'Malley appointed is studying the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing, commonly called "fracking," in which large quantities of water, sand and chemicals are pumped deep into the ground to free up gas trapped in layers of shale. The other $500,000 is earmarked for gathering "baseline" data on groundwater, stream and air quality in western Maryland.
The fracking funding was one of several spending boosts O'Malley proposed on the environment. He requested $36 million to "invest" in upgrades to urban and suburban storm-water systems and other projects to reduce bay pollution. He proposed a 13 percent increase in funding for the Maryland Park Service, which has been struggling to keep up with 11 million visitors to the state's 66 parks.
O'Malley also called for a boost in the Maryland Department of the Environment's budget to add lead-paint inspectors as the state expands its regulation of rental housing to "newer" units built after 1950 but before 1978. The agency is in line to get $1.9 million more for water permitting, inspection and enforcement activities as well. The governor proposed $15.4 million for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, including a new grant program.
The governor's move to fund the "fracking" study comes after the gas industry twice succeeded in blocking legislation that would have financed the review through a fee on drilling leases. Amid growing concern about the drilling practice, he issued an executive order putting it on hold in Western Maryland and ordered a comprehensive three-year study of the environmental and other impacts. State environmental officials said they lacked the staff or funding to carry out the ordered study, however.
Del. Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat who's championed environmentalists' concerns over the drilling practice, issued a statement saying she was "thrilled" that the governor had made the fracking study a budget priority. But she said she still intends to press for legislation that would impose a formal moratorium "until sufficient safety studies are concluded ... and the General Assembly has time to conclude whether further study is necessary; whether the permits should be allowed with new regulations; or whether the risk is too high and the activity must be banned."
Mizeur's bill is one of a clutch of fracking bills expected this year. Del. Shane Robinson, another Montgomery County Democrat, has indicated he'll introduce two, including one that would permanently ban the practice in Maryland.
Whether any fracking legislation passes this year remains to be seen. Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chairwoman of that chamber's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, earlier this week indicated her skepticism about dealing with the issue until the studies are done, and saw little reason to since no one is actively seeking permission to drill for gas in Maryland.
"We have so many fracking bills," she said during a briefing Tuesday, "some to ban it, some to study it." But, she added, "I doubt very seriously if any of those bills are going to come out of this committee," noting that the companies that had applied for permits to drill using hydraulic fracturing in Garrett County have since either withdrawn their applications or are no longer pursuing them.