outbursts in Annapolis

February 27, 2013

senate fracking hearing photo

We looked excited before we knew what was ahead: about six hours of waiting and a harsh rebuke. //photo by Megan Jenny of Chesapeake Climate Action Network

At least half a dozen Western Maryland residents rose in the dark, left home as an ice storm approached, traveled 200 miles to Annapolis and waited, along with environmental and health activists, for nearly six hours yesterday to testify in favor of a moratorium on fracking in the state.

For their trouble, they were screamed at repeatedly by state Sen. Joanne Benson, a member of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

“We are going through an exercise in futility,” she shrieked. And then she yelled again: “We are going through an exercise in futility here. It’s a dead issue.” And, “Nothing is going to happen.” And “The decision has already been made.” (Oddly, Benson is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 514 that would ban fracking in Maryland.)

Before that, the chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Joan Carter Conway, also lacerated Sens. Jamin Raskin and Robert Zirkin for co-sponsoring the bill, Senate Bill 601, that would create a legislative moratorium in the state and put into law the governor’s executive order requiring studies.

“We all know there will be no fracking in Maryland,” she shouted. She said she had a letter from the attorney general in which he had assured her that Maryland was at no risk from industry lawsuits. “We have no liability,” she said. The governor has put $1.5 million in the budget to study fracking, and until the study is done, she said, “There will be no fracking in Maryland.” The state will not issue permits, she said. For good measure, she added again, “You cannot frack in the state of Maryland” until the studies are done.

Zirkin defended the bill, asking for “the imprimatur of the General Assembly” on the governor’s executive order, which expires in 2014. He said Maryland has only a “backdoor moratorium” that industry could challenge. Already, Dominion has sued the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the town of Myersville for rejecting a permit for a compressor station for natural gas. That suit involves “the same game with the same players,” Zirkin said.

Raskin said the moratorium is like a yellow light in Maryland: “Let’s guarantee we don’t frack until we do the studies.”

But Conway disputed that the Myersville case had any relevance to the fracking debate. She clearly wanted to dismiss the entire discussion. She said that the governor has included money for the study and that previous bills have liability covered. If fracking is ever permitted, “we are very protected,” she insisted.

Nevertheless, the testimony proceeded, with numerous witnesses imploring Conway to let the bill come to a vote in the panel and send it to the full Senate. For most of the testimony, Conway and Benson disappeared from the room. So this is what democracy looks like.

“Those who came from Garrett County came with the sincerest of intentions,” said Nadine Grabania, who owns Deep Creek Cellars with her husband, Paul Roberts. “We are asking for protection.”

She said she doesn’t want the studies to be rushed to completion before the executive order expires next year. “Give us a bit of a guarantee,” she said. “We just want the bill brought to a vote.”

Without protections of a moratorium, she said, “powerful interests who stand to gain will just bulldoze us. “

Ina Hicks, born 83 years ago near the Youghiogheny River in Garrett and still living nearby, said she wants the river to stay pristine. “Until these things are law, your wonderful chairwoman – she isn’t God,” she said. “We are talking about humongous corporations who can bring in tons of lawyers to do whatever they want with my home.” She said she was approached by a landman who gave her his phone number on a scrap of paper torn from his legal pad. She refused to lease to her land for fracking, but others did.

Mike Tidwell, executive director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the bill is a “reasonable, common-sense” approach. “Do we have sufficient legal protections?” he asked. “With all due deference, that is an open question.”

He also cited results of a new CCAN-commissioned poll released Monday showing that 76 percent of Western Marylanders support environmental and health studies. Those counties are on top of the Marcellus Shale, but other shale lies under Charles, Anne Arundel and Calvert counties and the Chesapeake Bay, so this is not just a Western Maryland concern, he said. (The poll showed that 78 percent of Marylanders believe the General Assembly should require safety and environmental studies.)

“All we are asking for is added insurance,” he said.

Matia Vanderbilt said she had been to Annapolis to testify on various fracking bills for the past 3 years, with only the governor’s executive order to show for her efforts. “That is all we have. His word and the 2014 deadline approaching.”

“The gas industry works hard to kill our bills,” she said, and in 2014 a new governor could pressure MDE to issue permits. “This is our only insurance,” she said. If not for its importance, “we wouldn’t leave our county in the middle of an ice storm,” she said.

Linda Herdering, who owns Husky Power Dogsledding, said, “Our voices need to be heard, and our reason is that we don’t feel safe. You can yell at us, but [circumstances] can change.”

“Thirteen hours ago, I left my house to be here,” said James “Smokey” Stanton of the Youghiogheny River Watershed Association. The moratorium bill “strengthens the executive order.”

Richelle Brown of the Sierra Club said she had talked with people near fracking sites in West Virginia. “I wish I could convey to you the misery they have undergone.” she said. “When the frackers came, the misery started.  …. Western Maryland deserves the strongest protection,” she said.

Katie Huffling of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments said the American Nurses Association and Maryland Nurses Association back a moratorium on fracking until further studies are completed.

Those opposed to the moratorium, who also waited for hours but at least didn’t get yelled at, said the executive order was sufficient and that Maryland was walking away from jobs. They criticized the moratorium as just one more delay. “This is not simply a yellow light; it’s a red light. I wonder if the light will ever be green, ” said Merlin Beitzel, vice chairman of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce.

“This bill sends the wrong message,” said James Raley, a Garrett County commissioner who is also a member of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission. Trained workers go to Pennsylvania and West Virginia rather than getting jobs in the industry in Maryland. “We don’t need a moratorium.”

Jeffrey Kupfer, a senior adviser at Chevron and a member of the study commission, called the bill “a solution looking for a problem.”

Billy Bishoff of the Garrett County Farm Bureau said, “The call for more studies is simply more smoke.”

Shawn Bender, division manager at Beitzel Corp., president of the Garrett County Farm Bureau and member of the commission, said, “We’re confident … we can come up with the gold standard.”

One big question our pro-moratorium contingent had was why the Senate committee members scheduled so many controversial bills to be heard in one day. At the start of the hearings, we were told the quick bills would go first. Well, none of the bills was quick. Many people signed up on both sides of a bill designed to reduce the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals used for meat; a bill to ban the selling and buying of shark fins (yes, some in the restaurant business want to retain the right to sell shark fins); and the so-called bag bill, designed to encourage reusable cloth bags and setting a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags at stores. Donna Dempsey, from the 1984-ishly named American Progressive Bag Alliance, criticized made-in-Chinese-sweatshop reusable cloth bags that would also carry germs and make people sick. Made-in-America-of natural-gas plastic bags are the “most economical” and “most sustainable,” she asserted. And their manufacture creates jobs. Sen. Paul Pinsky aptly called out the Alice-in-Wonderland aspects of that and similar testimony, saying he was having flashbacks to the cigarette industry’s threat of job losses. “We’ve got global warming,” he said, and noted the energy consumed to produce, collect and process even recycled plastic bags. “You’re holding onto a technology we are going past,” he told the bag people.

Those in favor and those opposed to the fracking moratorium found common ground on Senate Bill 766, which would protect Marylanders from fly-by-night, unscrupulous landmen wanting landowners to sign leases to frack land. If passed, the law would require the landmen to registered in the state.

And about 8 p.m., we also got the news that the Senate Finance Committee had passed Senate Bill 275, the Offshore Wind Energy Bill, sending it to the full Senate for a vote. The House of Delegates approved its version of the bill Feb 22. A bit of good news to end the day.

–elisabeth hoffman

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