By Barry Rascovar
March 30, 2015 — Shakespeare, as usual, had it right. “Full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” That describes the squabbling in Annapolis over hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.”
It is Maryland’s phantom issue.
Environmentalists and do-gooder legislators are panicked that fracking will mean earthquakes, tainted drinking water, dirty air, despoliation of pristine farmland and other biblical plagues. They want to bar this drilling procedure forever in Maryland.
Never mind that wide-spread fracking has been going on since 1950. In those 65 years, more than one million wells have been fracked, in which a combination of water, sand and chemicals is pumped under high pressure deep into shale formations. This fractures the rock and sends deposits of oil and/or natural gas gushing to the surface.
Low Oil Prices = No Fracking
There’s only a tiny part of Maryland where hydraulic fracturing into the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation is viable — in far Western Maryland, i.e., portions of Garrett County and a bit of Allegany County. The number of farmers who might benefit from oil and gas royalties is very small.
Moreover, no oil or gas driller is interested in Maryland any longer. The steep plunge in oil and gas prices makes fracking in the state far too costly now or any time in the foreseeable future.
So the arguments in Annapolis are largely speculative.
Environmentalists continue to spout off about the doom and gloom that will descend on Maryland if fracking is allowed — part of a larger argument by environmental zealots who seek to ban coal and even gas-fired power plants, nuclear power plants, the export of liquified natural gas, as well as wind farms in state parks (they won that fight) and wind farms on the lower Eastern Shore.
The O’Malley administration, never a friend of business-development if it bumped up against the fears of the environmental community, forbid fracking for three years while it conducted a lengthy, in-depth, scientific study.
The results pleased no one: The research showed fracking could be done safely in Maryland, but only under very strict state supervision — the strictest rules in the nation.
Even that hasn’t made environmentalists happy. Nothing short of a permanent ban will satisfy them.
A bill imposing another three-year moratorium — totally meaningless in today’s low-cost energy world — has made it out of the House of Delegates. Prospects in the Senate are less certain. The bill calls for a 36-month study that would largely duplicate the O’Malley administration’s extensive research.
Meanwhile, a Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County, offers an even more extreme step that kills any possibility of fracking coming to Maryland.
It creates extraordinary legal liability standards, calling fracking “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous” and requires a $10 million insurance policy that must be in place for six years after drilling ends.
Few Side Effects
Funny thing: Over the past 65 years, fracking has been conducted without much in the way of negative side effects.
The industry has used fracking over 1 million times and the number of “ultrahazardous” outcomes has been tiny.
“Abnormally dangerous”? It would be hard to make that assertion stand up statistically.
It would be as if the Maryland legislature declared airplane travel “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous” due to a few highly publicized crashes — even though the odds of being killed this way are 1 in 30 million.
The fracking follies in Annapolis are a case of populist rhetoric run amuck. It’s a do-gooder attempt to outlaw something that is no longer on the radar screen in Maryland — and won’t be for years or decades to come.
Waste of Energy
Making it impossible for oil and natural gas companies to drill in Maryland — even under exceptionally close state supervision — is the sort of anti-business hostility Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. may not be able to tolerate.
A veto could await either the House bill or the Senate bill.
Still, all of this is academic — an exercise in wasted energy.
As long as oil and gas prices remain depressed, fracking has zero future in Maryland. The legislature has better things to do in its remaining days before its April 13 adjournment.