Gov. Larry Hogan announced Friday he supports banning fracking, a surprise revelation that could make Maryland one of the first states to ban the controversial method of drilling for natural gas.
The Republican governor said passing legislation to prohibit fracking was "an important initiative to safeguard our environment.
"I urge members of the legislature on both sides of the aisle and in both houses to come together and finally put this issue to rest," Hogan said during a State House news conference.
Some Democratic lawmakers in the General Assembly and environmental advocates have pushed for years to ban fracking.
Supporters of the drilling say it would bring jobs that are needed to boost the economy in Western Maryland, where fracking could be used to extract underground natural gas from a type of shale. Opponents have countered that it could harm the environment and public health, threatening the region's tourism industry.
The House of Delegates approved a bill last week that would ban the practice and a companion bill is expected to move forward in the state Senate.
Environmentalists say Maryland would become the first state with natural gas that could be fracked from underground shale to pass a law banning the practice. New York, which also has shale gas, banned the practice by executive order. Vermont passed a law to ban fracking, but has no gas that could be fracked.
"This would be the most nationally significant environmental bill Maryland has ever passed," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Thomas Meyer, a Maryland organizer for the national group Food and Water Watch, said Hogan's announcement should send a message to politicians in other states that banning fracking is a smart decision.
"It says to Republicans: This is the direction we need to be going in," Meyer said. "More importantly, it says to Democrats: You can't call yourself a progressive on climate issues if you're supporting fracking."
Hogan's announcement took fracking opponents by surprise. Advocates have been rallying for the fracking ban all session. About a dozen, including Tidwell, were arrested Thursday morning during a demonstration at the State House.
As environment and climate activists rejoiced in the unexpected boost to their cause, supporters of fracking expressed frustration.
Del. Wendell R. Beitzel, an outspoken opponent of the fracking ban, said in a Facebook post that he was disappointed by Hogan's announcement. Beitzel, a Garrett County Republican, did not respond to a request for comment.
"While campaigning for Governor, he implied to members of the Western Maryland Delegation he supports responsible natural gas development," Beitzel wrote of Hogan. "We were told that the 'war on Western Maryland was over.' It appears that the Governor has capitulated to the environmental community."
The oil and gas industry also panned the governor's announcement. Maryland Petroleum Institute director Drew Cobbs said Hogan is making a poor decision for political reasons.
"Maryland families and opportunities for job creation have lost out to the whims of a vocal minority — inconsistent with the governor's vision to create well-paying jobs in Maryland," Cobb said in a statement.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a sponsor of the fracking ban, joined Hogan at his announcement.
"There is simply no regulatory way to protect our citizens from the dangers of this technology," said Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "This is the right policy for the citizens of our state."
Zirkin said he's been lobbying the governor to ban fracking since approaching him at a Baltimore Ravens football game more than a year ago.
"I was working him over a Bud Light," Zirkin said. "And I've been working him ever since."
Not invited to the news conference was the ban's House sponsor, Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo.
"I'm happy to hear the governor has managed to see the light," the Montgomery County Democrat said. He said he was "surprised that nobody bothered to contact me."
A moratorium on fracking is due to expire later this year, and Hogan had proposed what he called "platinum" regulations to govern the practice. As recently as last week, Hogan's environment secretary, Ben Grumbles, touted those proposed regulations as "the most protective and comprehensive in the country."
Hogan said Friday that the regulations would have made it "virtually impossible" to engage in fracking, and he chided lawmakers for delaying their implementation.
When Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller suggested a long-term moratorium followed by a non-binding voter referendum, the governor said he decided to act. He said he "decided that we must take the next step, and move from virtually banning fracking to actually banning fracking."
Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, said he suggested a referendum to hear the opinions of residents in Garrett and Allegany counties, which have part of the Marcellus Shale formation where fracking is possible.
"I am not for fracking, never have been for fracking, never will be for fracking," Miller said.
"The advocates for fracking have claimed that the people of Western Maryland are for fracking, and I believed it was important to let those residents' opinions be heard," he said.
Hogan's support for the ban eliminates the need for fracking opponents to count votes in the Senate, where they were trying to get a veto-proof majority of senators to support the bill. Baltimore Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who chairs the Senate's environment committee, had previously said she wouldn't let the bill out of her committee unless there were 29 votes in the 47-member Senate — enough to override a veto.
But Conway said Friday she'd already made up her mind to allow the bill to advance to the full Senate.
"I have never said I was holding the bill, but that was the perception," she said.
Conway had sponsored a bill that would have set a long-term moratorium on fracking. She said she opposes the drilling practice.
"Do I think they should frack in Maryland? No, I don't," she said.
Hogan's announcement was welcome news for former delegate and gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur. The Democrat started pushing for a fracking ban in 2011 and continued even after she was no longer in office.
Mizeur spoke this month at an Annapolis rally for a ban. She was tipped off Friday that Hogan would make the announcement but said, "I didn't actually believe it until I saw it."
"I never doubted once that this day would arrive," Mizeur said. "I just didn't think we'd have Larry Hogan standing next to us — a change of heart on the most meaningful of issues."