BALTIMORE - Natural gas drilling in western Maryland, offshore wind power, and new growth and septic system requirements are among the environmental issues facing state lawmakers again as the Maryland General Assembly gathers Wednesday.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who switched a member on the Senate committee assigned to take up offshore wind to another committee to help ensure the measure makes it to the full Senate, expressed confidence in its passage.
"Wind energy will pass the General Assembly this session," Miller, D- Calvert, declared early Wednesday morning on the Marc Steiner Show on WEAA-FM, noting that it will likely mean a $1.50 increase on monthly electric bills.
Montgomery County Delegate Heather Mizeur said she is seeking a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas until a study called for in an executive order by the governor is fully completed. However, state lawmakers have not been able to decide how to pay for the study and that question will again be before them.
Hydraulic fracturing uses water and chemicals to break up underground shale formations and release trapped natural gas. Critics say it can lead to groundwater pollution and other environmental harm. Supporters note it can be an economic boon to rural areas. A state commission is expected to issue its final report next year and Mizeur said the industry is hoping to get permits even if the issue has not been sufficiently studied.
"We're saying no, the time for the commission's work can come or go, that doesn't matter anymore, what matters is you won't get a permit until the studies are done," Mizeur said.
Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said no other industry is required to fund studies to operate in the state, but denied the industry was waiting for the commission to expire. Cobbs said the industry had proposed using revenue from a test well to fund fracking studies.
A bill to spur offshore wind energy will also come before lawmakers again after failing to pass in each of the past two years.
Gov. Martin O'Malley has tried twice to pass an offshore wind bill.
The first version of the bill would have mandated utilities to enter into long- term contracts with offshore wind power producers. The costs to consumers were questioned by some lawmakers. The bill proposed last year did not require mandatory contracts but would have cost residential utility customers about a $1.50 a month.
Mizeur and Sen. Paul Pinsky, co-chair of the environment subcommittee on the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said they are more confident this year. Mizeur blamed election year politics and a tight legislative calendar last year, but said "those issues appear to have taken care of themselves."
Meanwhile, Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, said he plans to try to roll back new growth and septics rules imposed last year, but admitted he faces a difficult battle in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. However, Pinsky said there will be debate and discussion on whether counties are complying.
"It looks like there might be some counties that just thumb their nose at the law," Pinsky said.
The law created a four-tiered system limiting where developers can build residential subdivisions that use septic systems. Local governments had until December to adopt the limits.
Les Knapp, a spokesman for the Maryland Association of Counties, said the association is seeking a two-year moratorium on new land use and environmental initiatives to give counties time to deal with new regulations passed in recent years.
The association was also working with the Department of the Environment on variances to regulations for more expensive, best-available technology septic systems that are required for new construction and additions. The new systems can cost $15,000 and are more expensive to operate and maintain, he said.
Areas where the new systems will provide little, if any, improvement over traditional systems and home expansions to make room for aging relatives are two examples of possible exceptions, Knapp said.
"We think that doesn't get to the intent of new growth and penalizes someone who is trying to care for an elderly relative," Knapp said.
Associated Press Writer Brian Witte contributed to this report in Annapolis, Md.
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