Two prominent Montgomery County senators are adding their voices to the call for a moratorium on natural gas drilling through hydraulic fracturing in Maryland.
State Sens. Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist 16) of Chevy Chase and Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park announced Wednesday that they would support an effort by Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park to pass a bill banning the practice known as fracking until studies have been conducted that shed more light on how the process affects the environment and public health.
In fracking, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the ground to release natural gas trapped in underground rock formations.
There have been reports of groundwater contamination and natural gas seeping out of the ground in some areas around drilling operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The Marcellus Shale formation, the largest store of natural gas in the country, runs under the Appalachian Mountains through New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Allegany and Garrett counties in Western Maryland.
“The gas that we’re talking about has been there for millions of years,” Frosh said. “It’s still going to be there. We need to protect our citizens.”
The support of Frosh and Raskin could mean that moratorium legislation might include a provision to charge energy companies a per-acre fee to fund the studies. Similar legislation passed in the House of Delegates twice, but failed to make it out of committee in the Senate.
“The Senate is a cautious, deliberative body for a reason,” Raskin said. “There are lots of members of the General Assembly that are just tuning in to this issue.”
Mizeur said the per-acre fee is one aspect of the issue that she is looking at, but she has not finalized the language of the moratorium bill to be proposed.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) issued an executive order in 2011 that bars state agencies from granting permits until a study is conducted. However, no funding has been allocated for such a study, and fracking skeptics fear energy companies will wait out O’Malley’s term, which ends in 2014, unless the General Assembly takes action.
Mizeur also pointed out that without legislation, energy companies could sue state agencies for drilling permits.
Legislators from Western Maryland have argued that companies are losing interest in drilling in the state, as natural gas prices plummet and the permitting process is stalled.
“They’re not going anywhere,” Frosh said. “They bought leases here. They might wait longer to drill, but [natural gas] is still a valuable commodity.”
But it’s a commodity that landowners are missing out on, said Del. Wendell R. Beitzel (R-Dist. 1A) of Accident.
“If legislation comes out of this, nothing is going to happen in Maryland,” Beitzel said. “There’s no regard for people in Allegany and Garrett counties who could benefit from owning gas rights and exploiting their own land. If [the senators] had any interest in all of Maryland, they ought to come out here and explore it themselves.”