A Senate panel voted Wednesday to impose a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Western Maryland, a pause to allow lawmakers to review any limits the Hogan administration might put on the controversial drilling practice.
The delay, approved by the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, now goes to the full Senate. Senators recently passed a bill that would increase the gas industry's legal liability for any pollution or health problems caused by drilling.
The House has voted for a three-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. If the Senate approves the two-year delay, the two chambers would need to resolve the difference before sending a bill to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
The Senate committee vote comes as the administration weighs sweeping new drilling regulations proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley following a 31/2-year study of the risks of fracking.
The issue has divided Western Maryland. Proponents argue gas extraction could provide jobs; opponents say it could cause environmental problems and undermine tourism, a major contributor to the region's economy.
Proponents of gas drilling have argued the proposed rules are too strict, but environmentalists have criticized them as inadequate. Some say O'Malley's administration did not look closely enough at health hazards and potential impacts on tourism. They were lobbying for a bill that would delay fracking for another eight years to allow more time for research.
Committee Chairwoman Joan Carter Conway got her colleagues to go with the two-year delay. The bill would require the Maryland Department of the Environment to finalize drilling regulations by Oct. 1, 2016. The rules could not take effect until a year later.
Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, said that would give lawmakers a chance to have the final say.
Conway said she wasn't a proponent of fracking, but rather a "realist." With natural gas prices low and regulations still pending, she said, she did not expect drilling to begin soon. But a two-year delay, she said, should allay the fears of those concerned about the impacts.
Environmentalists welcomed the move, even if it fell short of what they wanted.
"Legislators are looking at the serious health and economic risks of fracking and rightly choosing to hit the 'pause' button," said Shilpa Joshi with Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, an industry group, declined to comment.
A Hogan spokeswoman said the governor was reviewing the legislation but believes that "if fracking can be done in an environmentally safe way, then he would want to move forward with it."