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.