Many state lawmakers likely expected Gov. Larry Hogan — who two years ago became the first Republican governor to allow a statewide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing — to veto a bill that would ban it permanently in Maryland.

For that reason, two bills were prepared in the state Senate this legislative session — one that would have banned outright the drilling technique for extracting natural gas from underground rock formations and another that would have extended the moratorium that was set to expire in October, but would have allowed individual counties to vote on the matter in a referendum. What’s more, the Maryland Department of the Environment had just developed new regulations on drilling that were being hailed as the strictest in the nation; Hogan suggested they were the equivalent of a de facto ban, making drilling “virtually impossible.”

But on Friday, a month after a joint legislative committee scotched his new regulations, the governor called on state lawmakers to approve a bill banning fracking, which he said he’d sign. Hogan’s announcement caught everybody by surprise — Democratic and Republican lawmakers as well as advocates for and against fracking. As a candidate for governor, Hogan once called fracking a “gold mine” for Maryland, so his complete about-face was unexpected.

Fracking involves injecting at high pressure a slurry of sand, chemicals and water deep underground to force open layers of shale where deposits of natural gas and oil are sealed within. The practice is opposed by environmentalists and some businesses and farmers that maintain it presents too many risks to air quality and to surface water and underground aquifers. Proponents of fracking say the development of cleaner burning natural gas as an energy source is less of a threat to the environment than coal, that it has helped the United States move toward energy independence and has brought jobs and resulted in lower energy costs to consumers.

Hogan’s move can be seen as both visionary and remarkably pragmatic. The deposits will still be there if and when improvements in drilling technology can guarantee no bad impacts for the environment. Also, given the current glut of natural gas in the United States, it’s unlikely drillers would be beating down any doors to renew their leases.

But if the Senate had been forced to advance the weaker bill out of a fear that it wouldn’t have been able to muster a veto-proof majority, Hogan’s run for re-election would have been on the same ballot as the referendum, leaving the governor with a lot of explaining to do. Or the Senate could have gathered enough votes on the tougher bill to override a veto, handing Hogan an embarrassing defeat in a session that has already seen him endure a few knocks. The House of Delegates approved legislation to ban fracking by a veto-proof margin last week. And the Senate was moving in that direction.

And maybe a win just wasn’t worth it. Western Maryland has remained divided on fracking with supporters saying it would bring economic development, but detractors worrying that it could ruin the region’s important tourism industry. One little victory for Hogan: His announcement forced Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. to scramble to reiterate his support for a ban. Rattled by the prospect of the Senate’s not being able to get to a 29-vote veto-proof margin, Miller had been signaling he’d back the referendum measure.

Whatever Hogan’s motivation in calling for a complete ban — whether it was to keep from having a threatened veto overturned, or to steal the Senate’s thunder, the move benefits Maryland. With this legislation, the state will become the first with natural gas deposits to pass a law to ban fracking. Hogan’s move also has nationwide implications. By banning fracking, Maryland sends a powerful message that the state is serious about its investment in renewable energy and that its leaders take seriously the need to confront climate change.

Even if the politicians emerged from this a little worse for wear, the environment is the one clear winner in this fight.

(14) comments

Heater34

I'm not so sure about the fracking issue. We never see actual scientific studies that objectively evaluate the impact of fracking on the environment. In fact, I have a friend with a PhD in geology who told me that if fracking is done properly there is no damage to the environment. All we ever hear is an emotional diatribe on how terrible fracking is. Kind of like the story of chicken little and the sky falling. The one important fact we do know is that fracking bans help OPEC and foreign oil producers. These producers will spend billions to support anti fracking movements. One thing is for sure I don't think that anyone who experienced the Saudi contrived oil shortage during the 1970's wants to see our country back under the Saudi thumb again.

DickD

Don't worry about being under the Saudi's thumb again, Heater. We have renewable energy sources like we did not have in the 1970s, we have electric cars, we don't need fracking now and if we need it later, it will still be there.

Heater34

Hello DickD That's true I agree with you that the oil will always be there and we are a lot more efficient with energy usage than we were in the 1970's although I do miss the big block Pontiac GTO's. However, what's wrong with fracking if it is actually safe? Shouldn't folks that own the oil have the right to develop their property if it can be done in a responsible manner just like any other property owner. After all property rights are one of our most important civil rights.

DickD

That is always the issue, Heater, but most if not all the people that bought that property bought it for farming, not mineral and oil rights. They were just lucky to have it on their property. But we have always managed property with zoning and Right Of Eminent Domain. Besides, if you are going to argue property rights how about the possibility of ruining your neighbors well and making the land worthless for generation, for all. All so a few can get wealthy, is that what we are all about as a nation?

Heater34

Hello DickD That's my point how do we know that responsible fracking would actually affect someone's well water? Water wells are what about 100 feet deep. Oil wells can be a thousand feet deep or more. Is there actually a relationship between water wells being fouled by deeper oil wells? I have yet to see a serious study that addresses this question in the negative. If there was a strong relationship between water and oil wells wouldn't the water wells have been fouled by the oil wells or surface oil deposits to begin with? I'm not questioning the government's power to regulate property usage through zoning or eminent domain. However, should the government's power be used to deny someone's use of property without good and sufficient reason? To deny someone the right to use their property without a good legal, public welfare or even scientific reason is tyranny. Personally I think fracking should be allowed if it can be demonstrated that the fracking would not create any real threat to the environment.

Hayduke2

Wow, bought big oil's propaganda hook, line and sinker!

Heater34

Now duke Why does common sense have to be big oil propaganda? After all, if you were running the Saudi oil monopoly wouldn't you want the US to abandon fracking?

DickD

This looks like a win for the environment and the oil, gas, etc. will be there later, if needed.

Dwasserba

"By banning fracking, Maryland sends a powerful message that the state is serious about its investment in renewable energy and that its leaders take seriously the need to confront climate change." We picked a good one. Now if only we can remain detached from the fallout of cluelessness bordering our state.

Heater34

Hello Dwasserba I do agree with you. We should promote clean energy resources whenever possible. However, even though we switch more and more to clean energy we will still need hydrocarbon based products to be used as lubricants for machines.

DickD

Heater, if we leave it in the ground, it will be there later, if we need it.

des21

Indeed. Hogan for President in '20!

DickD

Nah, nah, nah, you exceeded my limit. [rolleyes]

Heater34

Mine to!

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