Why Maryland lawmakers should not ban fracking

Originally published in the Baltimore Business Journal

Maryland lawmakers are on the verge of permanently handicapping the state economy.

During the upcoming legislative session, some General Assembly members are expected to introduce bills to permanently ban "fracking," the drilling technology that extracts oil and gas from shale. Unfortunately, the lawmakers supporting such measures have fallen victim to anti-science hysteria drummed up by a radical fringe that paints fracking as a serious environmental danger.

It's not. And banning fracking would deprive Maryland of thousands of new jobs and potentially billions in new growth. Lawmakers ought to reject these bills.

Technically known as "hydraulic fracturing," fracking involves injecting a high-pressure mixture of water and sand into underground rock formations to release embedded oil and gas. Fracking affords developers access to energy reserves unreachable with traditional extraction techniques.

Fracking has launched an energy revolution in this country, driving domestic gas production to unprecedented heights and producing billions in new growth. Our state should be joining in: Our northwest corner sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a massive underground rock formation containing an estimated 500 trillion cubic feet of gas.

And yet, we're missing out. Two years ago, before even a single well had been drilled, Annapolis installed a moratorium on fracking.

That moratorium is set to expire in October. In preparation, state regulators drafted a set of safety and health rules to govern fracking once it's legalized. Late last month, however, the General Assembly postponed the implementation of these regulations, effectively extending the moratorium.

Several legislatures want to use this delay to make the ban permanent. Sen. Robert Zirkin, a Democrat representing Baltimore, has said it would be "the height of legislative negligence" if the General Assembly failed to permanently outlaw fracking.

Critics claim fracking can poison local waterways. Yet, over the past 65 years, roughly two million wells have been fracked, and there have been zero confirmed cases of water contamination. In 2015, the EPA released the results of a six-year, $29 million investigation spanning over 100,000 wells. Its conclusion, there is virtually no environmental risk in fracking.

In fact, fracking has massive environmental benefits. The rapid expansion of natural gas production has prompted power plants all over the country to switch from coal to gas, which is both cheaper and burns much cleaner. Last year, largely thanks to this mass migration, American carbon emissions hit a 25-year low.

Given its own grand green ambitions, Maryland ought to be embracing fracking. Last year, Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly agreed to dramatically cut the state's greenhouse gas emissions, to a target that's roughly 40 percent below the annual emissions rate a decade ago. Meeting that goal is only possible with natural gas.

What's more, fully unleashing fracking would power sustained economic growth throughout Maryland.

Right now, the oil and gas sector supports 75,000 local jobs and, every year, adds $7 billion to the state economy. These industry positions are exactly what working Marylanders want — solid jobs largely immune to outsourcing, with an average salary that's nearly $10,000 higher than the overall state average.

Fracking also generates huge economic benefits outside of direct employment, such as royalty streams for landowners. A December 2016 study from researchers at MIT, Princeton, and the University of Chicago found that the average fracking operation brings up to $1,900 a year in benefits for neighboring households.

There will be a price to pay at the polls if legislatures continue to ignore the evidence and deny local fracking's massive economic benefits: some 80 percent of Marylanders favor increasing domestic energy production. Our lawmakers need to reject the anti-fracking hysteria, let the moratorium expire as planned, and empower Maryland to share in the full fruits of the fracking revolution.

Christopher B. Summers is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a nonpartisan public policy research and education organization that focuses on state policy issues.