By Jack Chavez
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland – Support for forest protection and opposition to hydraulic fracturing sparked two different rallies Wednesday, just before the House Environment and Transportation Committee heard testimony on three related bills.
Two of the bills would ban and criminalize hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The other would require developers to replant an acre of trees for every acre of forest they clear.
All three bills force lawmakers to confront issues that feature business interests on one side and environmental protection interests on the other.
Activists organized a “Fight for the Forests” rally less than an hour before the committee’s Wednesday afternoon meeting. The rally attracted supporters from all over the state.
“Under the Forest Conservation Act currently, the way the replacement values work, it guarantees that development is going to operate at a net loss of forest,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation staff attorney Elaine Lutz told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “(Under the current regulations) developers are subject to minimal planting requirements … that essentially comes out to one acre replanted for every four acres cleared—if that.”
Maryland has lost 14,480 acres of forest over the last eight years, according to data provided by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“The FCA does not cover all forest in Maryland,” Lutz said. “It typically covers the areas that are in our urban and suburban communities, and those are the forests that are the most susceptible to being lost to development without replacement.”
The majority of acres cleared and lost comes from the district of Delegate Anne Healey, D-Prince George’s, who is sponsoring the bill. In Prince George’s County alone, more than 9,000 acres were cleared and less than 2,000 were replanted during the same time span, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s data.
The committee also heard testimony on Wednesday from Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo, D-Montgomery, and numerous supporters and opponents of a pair of bills that would ban and criminalize the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Maryland.
A couple dozen supporters of legislation banning fracking congregated outside the House of Delegates office building Wednesday afternoon. They held signs and banners and waved at drivers passing by, many of whom waved and honked at them.
A state moratorium on fracking is set to expire in October. With that deadline approaching, legislators in both Maryland’s House and the Senate have introduced bills that would permanently ban the practice in the state.
“This session is the last chance for Maryland legislators to step up and protect the health, environment and tourism economy from the dangers of fracking once and for all,” Jackie Filson, field communications officer for D.C.-based consumer rights group Food & Water Watch, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “We’re looking to House delegates to act now and support (these bills) for a permanent, statewide fracking ban.”
Lawmakers and activists seek to not only ban fracking in the state, citing concerns about environmental effects, but criminalize the practice, for further deterrence, under a separate bill.
“If you frack in Maryland, you will go to jail (under the bill). That’s a completely different message than (writing a check) to make the problem go away,” Fraser-Hidalgo said.
Some of the individuals who oppose a fracking ban say that the people against the process are people who by and large aren’t from the areas where hydraulic fracturing would take place.
“I represent exclusively the area where fracking would occur,” said Delegate Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett and Allegany. “This country has been fracking since 1947, and it’s been a real game changer. Folks in the rest of the state (who are for a ban) don’t fully understand (the benefits).
Beitzel said last week he feels the concerns over health and environmental risks are overblown, and that the regulations Maryland would impose on fracking businesses are more than enough to mitigate any potential hazards.
“The ban is overkill,” Beitzel continued. “The anti-fracking publicity in itself has hurt tourism to Western Maryland more than (actual drilling) could.”