It was a moment many have been waiting for. Senator Ron Young, former Frederick Mayor, announced he would pull his earlier support for a fracking moratorium bill, SB862, and go full-steam ahead with his support for the ban bill, SB740 that prohibits hydraulic fracturing in Maryland. The senator made this announcement public at a rally held by the Don't Frack Maryland Coalition just ahead of the ban bill hearing. Senator Young holds a seat on the committee that would hear testimony.
This move changes the tenor of support for ban legislation along with yesterday's hearing on the bill. Senator, Joan Carter Conway, the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee Chair said she needs 29 votes to pass a veto-proof bill. The challenge was put to attendees testifying their support of SB740. It's all or nothing to accomplish passing a ban, Conway suggested, while asking the room if there was a will to put it all on the line. If the ban doesn't pass, drilling permits could be issued in October of this year.
Senator Bobby Zirkin, the ban bill's sponsor opened testimony by laying out a single issue. He described fracking as a public health problem by sharing over 900 peer-reviewed studies from noted institutions that have been looking at gas drilling over the last several years. Rather than diving into the details of each study, Zirkin shared terms that appear repeatedly throughout the thick stack of papers by his side. Cancer, leukemia, and premature birth would suggest "serious public health threats from fracking," he stated.
"It is not safe. It has not been done safely in any state in this country," Zirkin continues to explain. He follows with study after study, demonstrating links between fracking chemical and emissions to a litany of negative health outcomes including low infant birth weight.
He asked the committee to think proactively on the fracking issue using the prior example of lead-based paint. "The General Assembly could have put a stop to it back in the day, but didn't," Zirkin points out emphatically. Maryland could have avoided all the adverse health conditions by disallowing it. "If at some point you can get this stuff [natural gas] out of the ground without the words, cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia being associated with it? Come get it."
In closing statements, Zirkin explains there is little difference between a ban and a moratorium like the one Maryland is currently under. Both prohibit hydraulic fracturing but only the moratorium sets an "arbitrary deadline" that will expire. The ban can be overturned at any time gas extraction can prove to Maryland legislators, it can be done safely.
Following the senator's explanation of the ban legislation, seven hours of testimony didn't seem to wear down the committee. They remained patient and inquisitive with both ban proponents and gas industry representatives who worked to discredit the negative reputation that has haunted them in states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Engage Mountain Maryland Legislative Chair, Eric Robison commented on Conway's challenge to accepting nothing other than a ban on gas drilling. "We've spent time trying to divide our eggs into baskets to see what we can do to get the best bet. This time we're all coming to you, and we're begging and we're pleading. We put the eggs into one basket. We're asking for this committee to help us and our communities, and yours. We know the basket is full of just one set of eggs. If you guys [the EHEA Committee ] help us carry this basket, we'll get there, and we won't have to have this conversation ever again."
Late testimony for the moratorium bill asked Conway if she would support the ban. The controversial question pointed out that her single support and stature in the Senate would push the ban over the finish line. An answer to that question will have to wait.
Tomorrow, March 2, will mark a major fracking ban movement as hundreds will gather in Annapolis to ask for ban bill SB740 to become law. Now that the people have spoken, it will be up to the committee members of EHEA to make the decision. All eyes will be watching an issue that crosses party lines and is now deemed less about jobs and Maryland economics and more about public health and safety.