Prince George’s County, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., voted Tuesday to ban fracking, the controversial oil and gas extraction method that has helped spur a natural gas boom across the country.
“We really are with this vote taking a lead in his state and in the nation,” Councilmember Mary Lehman said at the hearing. “I could not be more proud of this county.”
Maryland passed a temporary moratorium on fracking in 2015, and environmental advocates are hopeful that the Prince George’s County ban will help pave the way for a statewide ban before the moratorium expires in 2017.
“We are in full support of this bill and are very thankful for it,” Prince George’s County resident JoAnn Flynn told the Council. Flynn and her husband own and operate a farm in Brandywine, Maryland, where they use exclusively well water. “This water is connected to the aquifers and water sheds,” Flynn said.
Martha Ainsworth, a local Sierra Club representative, also stressed the importance of protecting local water. “Fracking is dirty,” she said. “It uses large amounts of water; it injects carcinogenic chemicals into the ground.”
We really are with this vote taking a lead in his state and in the nation
During fracking, which is short for hydraulic fracturing, chemical-laced water is injected at high pressure into shale, releasing the oil and gas deposits below. The practice has been tied to water degradation, health issues, and earthquakes. Prince George’s County is expected to be particularly appealing to fracking companies, as one-third of its land mass sits atop the Taylorsville Basin, which is estimated to have more than 500 billion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. The county also runs along the Potomac and Patuxent rivers in Maryland.
More than 1,000 local residents had petitioned the council to pass a ban.
The ban is not the first of its kind, as local communities across the nation struggle to protect themselves from fracking. New York State has already passed a fracking ban — which also started as a moratorium before towns began restricting the practice at a local level. The New York State courts upheld towns’ rights to do so — but that’s not the case across the country. After a Texas town passed a fracking ban, the state legislature promptly passed legislation outlawing local bans. Oklahoma, which has struggled with a rash of fracking-related earthquakes, also prohibits local bans.
Councilmember Lehman said she hopes that Maryland will go in the direction of New York and that Tuesday’s action will “lay the groundwork for a statewide ban in Maryland.” Montgomery County, a wealthy D.C. suburban county, has already changed its zoning laws in such a way that fracking is essentially prohibited there, as well.
In fact, there is still considerable debate over what, if any, benefit natural gas has. While the fracking boom has helped the country transition off coal-fired power plants, it’s unclear if it has had the desired intention. Natural gas releases only about half the CO2 as coal when burned, but methane, which makes up 80 percent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat energy about 86 times more effectively than CO2 over a 20-year span.
Unfortunately, gas is difficult to contain. Methane “hot spots” have been found over fracking sites, and this past winter saw the largest methane leak in U.S. history, from a natural gas storage facility in California. Many scientists estimate that the methane released in natural gas extraction, transportation, and storage outstrips any climate benefit it has.