Last night at midnight, the Maryland legislative session ended without progress on any hydraulic fracturing bills.
The debate over fracking in Maryland follows two parallel tracks. One track is the Governor-appointed Commission studying drilling in the state. Their report and recommendations come due this August.
The second track is the Maryland General Assembly: a body of 188 part-time lawmakers who spend ninety days each winter debating nearly 2200 bills. Legislators have, since 2012, passed laws requiring landmen to register with the state, presuming driller liability when contamination occurs near an oil or gas rig, and increasing the bonds drillers must keep to help cover costs they impose on taxpayers. This year, legislators introduced bills that would impose bans, moratoria, setbacks, disclosure requirements, and severance taxes.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Hearing Room
The House had passed moratorium bills during earlier sessions. This time around, none of the bills really had a chance. Some specualte that committee leadership decided long ago to punt the fracking issues to the Governor's Commission. The hearing in the House was largely uneventful, but the voting session on the suite of fracking bills didn't go quite as planned.
One bill, by Del. Shane Robinson (D-Montgomery) would have prohibited storing, disposing, or transporting the wastewater from fracking facilities in Maryland. Our friends lobbied the bill hard. When the Chair called for the vote, a majority of committee members raised their hands signifying aye. One member voting in favor of the bill was heard whispering with surprise, “It’s going to pass.” But curiously, when the clerk officially tallied the vote, that Delegate along with two others, had their yes votes recorded as no. No explanation surfaced as to exactly how this vote switching occured.
Seeking to avoid a similar embarrassment, this time leadership made clear to the back bencher rank-in-file their intent to stall the moratorium bill. So, despite having eleven members of the House committee as co-sponsors, the bill died. The earlier show of support to ban fracking wastewater dissipated by the time came to show support for a moratorium.
Checks and Balances
A little bit of arm-twisting or vote trading is part of the policy-making business. But what really happened in Annapolis this session is the legislature chose to cede their responsibility. Come August, the Department may begin permitting while many important issues still remain outstanding. The legislators could have chosen to vet some of the Commission’s recommendations before permitting, but instead they simply refused to weigh in.
This legislative inaction did have one positive consequence however. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee refused to vote on a bill that would have imposed the nation’s second lowest severance tax on oil and gas extraction.
If At First You Don't Succeed
Marylanders will elect a new Governor and legislature this fall. And while it’s possible that drilling could begin before they are sworn in, without a doubt, all of the problems raised by our allies will return for next session. Hopefully, with the politics out of the way, we pass good bills rather than resign to simply defeat bad ones.