Maryland lawmakers on Friday voted to send Gov. Larry Hogan a two-year ban on the natural gas extraction process known as fracking.
The action marks the first time the legislature voted for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and its most decisive statement yet on curbing the controversial practice.
It is unclear whether Hogan plans to sign the bill, which passed the House Friday 102-34 and cleared the Senate Tuesday 45-2. Both are veto-proof margins.
The proposed law both forbids any permits for natural gas drilling and requires the state to enact regulations for the process by 2016.
Hogan, a Republican, has not taken a position on the bill but said he supports fracking as a way to bring jobs to economically depressed Western Maryland as long as the process can been done safely.
Environmentalists had backed a three-year moratorium that also called for further studying health and environmental impacts of fracking, but lawmakers instead passed a compromise that grants a shorter moratorium and forgoes another study.
"We are unconvinced that a regulatory approach can protect Maryland, and we are also disappointed the panel to review the available public health studies on fracking was removed from the original bill," said Mitch Jones, a member of the Don’t Frack Maryland Coalition.
Opponents of fracking say the practice has been linked to groundwater contamination, earthquakes and other environmental damage in other parts of the country.
Several long-term opponents of fracking bans dropped their opposition to this one, including Republican Western Maryland lawmakers and influential Senate Education Health & Environmental Affairs Chairwoman Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat.
The ban "really doesn't do that much damage to Western Maryland," said Republican Del. Wendell R. Beitzel of Garrett County. Beitzel voted for the moratorium "to the shock and surprise of many," he said.
Part of the reason: Maryland laws already require such stringent preparation to apply for a drilling permit that it would take roughly two years to prepare for an application. The moratorium also sets into a law a clear deadline for fracking regulations that have been delayed for years.
Beitzel said it will take at least that long to convince drilling companies to take a second look at acquiring leases in the state.
"Most of the companies have been getting the message that they're not really welcome here."
Maryland currently has no fracking applications pending and had operated under a de facto moratorium during former Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration. O'Malley, a Democrat who left office in January, spent several years developing regulations for fracking that he introduced a month before his term ended - not enough time to put them into effect.
Hogan has not enacted the regulations proposed by O'Malley.
The country has seen a boom in fracking wells over the past several years as new technology has allowed natural gas drillers to reach deposits previously considered too costly to extract. Many of those deposits sit beneath the Marcellus Shale formation that stretches beneath the Appalachian Mountains from West Virgina to New York.
The boom has contributed to falling natural gas prices.