Fracking deserves a pause

How can Md. greenlight fracking when the adverse impacts put so many existing jobs at risk?

The Maryland House of Delegates gave final approval Tuesday to legislation that would place a moratorium on the use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to produce natural gas in this state for the next three years. The vote was 93-to-45, a two-thirds majority. The proposal offers the kind of compromise that the state Senate and Gov. Larry Hogan ought to embrace.

Most notably, this is not a permanent ban, and indeed, one might argue that the economic impact is minimal as the market for drilling for natural gas in Maryland has clearly declined. That's due primarily to the dramatic rise in gas production in this country over the last decade and the abundant reserves now in storage. Prices for natural gas have plummeted, and companies that make a living searching and drilling for gas supplies have seen their values fall, too.

Yet with so little potential gain, Western Maryland still has much to put at risk. If Maryland licenses fracking operations in the state's modest portion of the Marcellus Shale range now, it may jeopardize assets of even greater worth — the clean air and clean water that fosters the region's growing tourism economy, from white water rafting on the Youghiogheny River to skiing at the Wisp Resort, boating on Deep Creek Lake to hiking through Green Ridge State Forest or other unspoiled wilderness areas.

Even if the process of extracting natural gas can be done safely — and that remains a pretty big "if" despite Maryland's efforts to develop best practices to make it so — there are some adverse effects that have clearly been demonstrated elsewhere. With fracking comes the headaches common to the recent natural gas boon — contamination of local wells, 24/7 heavy truck traffic, quantities of toxic waste that must be contained and disposed, and increased exposure to air pollution.

None of these is particularly compatible with Western Maryland's valuable tourism and vacation real estate industries — and that's not even to mention concerns about methane leaks and how natural gas extraction can worsen climate change, an especially important topic to a state with so much exposed coastline as Maryland.

Delaying the licensing process for three years is not unlike Governor Hogan's recent decision to delay regulations limiting phosphorus run-off from chicken manure spread on farm fields. In that instance, Mr. Hogan initially opposed the rules outright but instead chose to embrace a 7-year delay to protect an existing industry. Similarly, the House has thrown its support behind delayed fracking licenses for three years (although proponents had initially sought an eight-year delay to 2023) to protect the hospitality industry and other Western Maryland employers who might be damaged by the practice.

Both decisions involve government regulation and protecting the adverse impact of new policies. And supporting the effort would help boost Mr. Hogan's reputation for having a genuine concern for Maryland's environment and quality of life, a viewpoint that has suffered (at least within the Chesapeake Bay advocacy community) by the Republican's assault on locally-assessed fees dealing with pollution from stormwater runoff, also known as the "rain tax."

That leaves the state Senate, which has been loath to pass fracking moratoriums in the past but did just approve, by a 29-17 vote, legislation that my have much of the same effect by setting a strict liability standard for any hydraulic fracturing performed by an oil or gas driller. The heightened insurance requirements alone would seem to strongly discourage exploration, let alone large-scale production. Surely, supporters of natural gas drilling would prefer the three-year moratorium over a permanent change in liability law.

No doubt gas industry officials will roll their eyes at these circumstances, perhaps hoping that Mr. Hogan's call for an improved "business climate" would give them easier sailing in Annapolis where even former Gov. Martin O'Malley had endorsed allowing hydraulic fracturing, albeit under strict rules. But it is exactly this concern for business climate — and jobs — that ought to give lawmakers and Mr. Hogan pause.

The boom-and-bust temporary jobs (often filled by out-of-state workers) that come with the natural gas extraction economy may look desirable, but not if they put at risk the more permanent, local positions that can be found in all those hotels, outfitters, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, marinas, vacation property management firms and on and on that are increasingly providing the foundation of Western Maryland's economy. To put it simply, would you want to drink from, or go camping near, a stream in an area where water, sand and chemicals are being injected into the ground to break up rock and release natural gas? There's simply no reason for Maryland to embrace such a risk to health, safety or livelihood right now.

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