Both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly separately passed measures Tuesday that mark the most aggressive action the legislature has taken to curb natural gas extraction in the state.
The Maryland House of Delegates passed a three-year ban on fracking and the Senate approved tough new legal standards for drillers. Each bill must still clear the other chamber, but the actions signaled the legislature was willing to go further than it has before to limit natural gas drilling.
"If we get this wrong, it is unfixable," Democrat Del. Dereck Davis told his colleagues during the House debate.
Maryland has been under a de facto ban for more than three years after former Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, put any permit review on hold while a commission studied the industry and his administration wrote regulations to enforce it.
Those regulations are now languishing on the desk of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, who has said he supports fracking and the jobs it would bring to economically depressed Western Maryland -- as long as it can be done safely.
Senators voted 29-14 to hold any future drillers to some of the country's strictest liability standards, declaring the practice "an ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous activity."
The distinction makes it easier to hold drillers financially responsible for any contamination and health or environmental problems, even if drillers followed all regulations. It also requires them to have hefty $10 million insurance policy that extends six years beyond the drilling operation, among other provisions.
"This bill is about ... when there are problems, when there's contamination, when someone is injured, who pays?" said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the bill.
Opponents contend the rules are so strict that they constitute a de facto ban, and said it was premature to pass liability requirements when the state still doesn't have any fracking regulations.
"It's putting the cart before the horse." said Sen. George C. Edwards, a Western Maryland Republican.
In the House, delegates voted 93-45, largely along party lines, for the three-year moratorium on fracking while a committee studies implications for public health and tourism. The study done under the O'Malley administration did not fully vet those issues, proponents said.
Western Maryland delegates and several Republicans from Baltimore County objected to the moratorium, arguing that fracking only impacts a small part of the state whose residents and local leaders are ready to welcome it.
"What really chafes my patoot .. is that fracking is inherently a local issue," said Haven Shoemaker, a Carroll County Republican. "This issue has been studied to death. We need to quit frackin' around and bring jobs to Western Maryland."