Bill to Stop Natural Gas Drilling Fails, Along with Other Environmental Legislation

By Kerry Davis
Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS -- A bill that would have imposed a two-year moratorium on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation while an environmental impact study was completed stalled in the Senate this legislative session after easily passing the House.

It is unclear how heavily the bill's failure will actually affect drilling into the Marcellus Shale formation via hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," since a hold has already been unofficially placed on drilling there.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has been holding permit applications for drilling since October 2009, citing potential environmental effects. Those applications for fracking were the first ever filed in the state.

The Department of the Environment is not expected to approve the applications without Gov. Martin O'Malley's approval. O'Malley has said he wants a thorough study done before fracking begins.

The Marcellus Shale formation runs under Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, West Virginia and a small part of Maryland, among other states. The formation is thought to contain the largest natural gas store in the United States and is located about a mile below the surface.

The bill's language would have forced companies that want to drill into the formation to pay for the environmental study.
"By not passing the bill what is not going to happen is a comprehensive bill," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation."Industry had agreed to pay a study for $1.2 to $1.5 million. Without the bill, the study won't happen but the administration will be doing a much smaller study."

Delegate Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett, fought to oppose the moratorium bill in the House and watched his own pro-drilling bill die in committee. He sent a letter to the governor Tuesday asking him to allow drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation, which houses natural gas.

"I think this has the potential to have a huge positive impact on the region I represent and also a positive impact to improve this state's energy needs," Beitzel said.

The fracking bill is just one of a number of environmental priorities that failed to get approval this session.

O'Malley's offshore wind energy bill failed to make it out of committee last week, and his partial septic system ban in new housing developments didn't get far either.

The legislature also turned back a bill that would ban a form of arsenic in chicken feed and a bill that would add a 5-cent tax for using plastic shopping bags in the state.

The environmental bills that did pass this year were mostly related to increasing poaching fees for oysters, rockfish and crabs, following a nearly 13-ton rockfish poaching discovery this year in the bay.

But Coble said the General Assembly supported the environment by keeping $23.5 million of the governor's $25 million budget proposal for the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund. And Coble said she believes the offshore wind energy and septic systems bills will most likely pass next year because they've been marked for further study.

"If you look at it just as a list of bills on paper it is disappointing," Coble said. "If you look at it in light of elections, the economy or the budget constraints that the state is under, it gets much better."