It was one of the most stunning reversals in Maryland political history. On the campaign trail, Governor Larry Hogan praised hydraulic fracturing for natural gas as a potential economic gold mine for the state. And, once in office, the Republican proposed regulations that would have allowed fracking for the first time in Maryland, although the rules were put on hold by Democratic lawmakers.
But then, unexpectedly on Friday, Hogan called a press conference in Annapolis to suddenly announce that he was supporting a bill that would permanently outlaw fracking in the state. His endorsement positions Maryland to become the first state in the U.S. with rock formations containing natural gas to legislatively ban fracking, which has been linked to air and water pollution and higher rates of asthma attacks and premature births.
Governor Hogan said: “Because the legislature has failed to enact our tough regulations, and because there is now a move by the senate president to allow for fracking, today I have decided to announce my full support for the Maryland fracking ban, which has been sponsored by Senator Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County.”
Here was the response of Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network: “Well, I think Larry Hogan shocked the state of Maryland when he did the right thing by conceding what environmental activists and landowners have been saying for years, and that is fracking can’t be done safely. It just cannot be done safely.”
So what’s political backstory to this turn-around?
On March 2, more than a thousand western Maryland residents and environmentalists marched down main street in Annapolis and ringed the State House with signs proclaiming, “Don’t Frack Maryland.” Eight days later, the Democratic majority house voted 97 to 40 in support of a ban on fracking, with eight Republicans supporting it.
One of the sponsors of the bill was state delegate Kumar Barve, a Democrat from Montgomery County and chair of the environment and transportation committee.
“This bill passed the committee and the house floor by overwhelming margins," Barve said. "This is real momentum to ban fracking. And as you know, 66 percent of the people in the state of Maryland want to ban fracking. So I think we need to listen to both the science and the people.”
Still, the bill faced a huge hurdle in the Senate. Both the chair of the senate Environmental Matters Committee, Senator Joan Carter Conway, Democrat from Baltimore – and the powerful Senate President, Mike Miller – were pushing an alternative bill that would open the door to fracking by allowing county voters to hold referenda to decide on their own if they want it.
Here’s Senator Conway, during a hearing: “You want Garrett County telling Baltimore City what to do? No. I do not want Garrett County telling Baltimore City what to do. At the same time, I am quite sure that you don’t want Baltimore city voters telling Garrett County what to do.”
Conway predicted that the fracking ban bill would fail, because Governor Hogan would likely veto it – and she doubted there were enough votes in the Senate to override a veto. However, slowly but surely, the count of senators supporting the ban crept upward. And then last Thursday, 13 anti-fracking activists were arrested for blocking lawmakers from entering the entrance to the State House in Annapolis.
The next morning, during a meeting with an anti-fracking lobbyist, state Senator Douglas Peters, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, revealed that he was now supporting the ban – providing a critical 29th vote, enough to override any possible veto from Governor Hogan.
Word quickly spread around the capital. And within two hours, Hogan announced at a hastily-assembled press conference that he had had a change of heart on the issue, and now supports a ban. The senate environmental matters committee voted to endorse the ban on Wednesday, March 22. And now the bill heads toward a vote by the full senate. With the governor’s newfound support, the odds of passage are looking good.