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This week, the Maryland General Assembly (MGA) gaveled in its 434th legislative session. Election year sessions tend to signify nothing but sound and fury. However, this time around, legislators have an opportunity to demonstrate trend-setting leadership on hydraulic fracturing policy.

Citizens’ Right-to-Know Shale Legislative Review Period

So, we’re still hammering out the name of this one (last year’s version). Delegate Heather Mizeur and Senator Ron Young will co-sponsor. Similar to the version that passed the House of Delegates two years ago, this bill would create an eighteen-month pause allowing the state to complete an environmental risk assessment as directed by Governor O’Malley’s Executive Order in 2011. The problem is that the Executive Order expires this year. The Governor’s Advisory Commission has spent the last couple years investigating these issues and is due to submit their final report in August. Once submitted, drilling in Maryland can begin as soon as the Maryland Department of the Environment issues permits. This ninety-day session could represent the last chance for the people’s representatives to lend their voice. If the MGA fails to act, they have effectively waived their opportunity.

Natural Gas Severance Tax

A severance tax is money extractive industries pay for the right to sever minerals from the ground. Thirty-six states impose some kind of severance tax. Senator George Edwards will sponsor (last year’s version). These taxes create a revenue source to pay the costs drilling forces upon all of us. Let’s just use one simple example: roads. Hydraulic fracturing a single well requires up to a couple thousand truck trips hauling water, chemicals, and drilling equipment among other things. For Maryland, this means huge vehicles driving on rural roads through a relatively poor part of the state.  To accommodate drilling, bucolic Garrett County would have to transform in to a place built to support heavy industrial activity. How much does that cost? Building and maintaining roads, bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure is one of the basic functions of government. Without sufficient revenues to offset these costs, Marylanders end up effectively subsidizing the oil and gas industry.

The Magical Wastewater

Benzene, one of the chemicals used in the fracking cocktail, causes cancer. For this reason, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) created a cradle-to-grave system to manage it. During gas production, operators inject benzene deep underground where it mixes with naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) before some of it returns to the surface as flowback or produced water. Here’s where the magic happens. The benzene injected in to the well is RCRA hazardous. But upon return- abracadabra-it’s no longer hazardous. Oil and gas wastes enjoy an exemption from RCRA- one of seven broad exemptions this industry has from our bedrock environmental laws. Montgomery County Delegate Shane Robinson has introduced a bill (last year’s version) to prevent disposal of wastewater in Maryland.

I have high hopes at the beginning of each session. I also have high expectations for our policymakers. Good policy ideas typically take a few years to percolate around Annapolis as legislators need time for vetting. But the time is now ripe for the Maryland General Assembly to take action protecting the environment and public health by passing bills that, at their core, reflect the growing opposition to fracking in our state.

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