By ELLEN STODOLA
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS – Republicans and Democrats are at odds in the General Assembly over whether Maryland should pursue offshore wind or natural gas fracking as a way to improve the state’s energy output.
Neither option has been approved, with offshore wind failing to pass in the General Assembly for the second year in a row, and fracking on hold while a commission studies environmental and health concerns.
The debate ultimately breaks down to many Republicans pushing for the cheaper, more immediate drilling solution, while many Democrats argue for the greener, more long-term answer to the question of what Maryland’s energy future will look like.
It’s a Maryland-sized version of the national battle, between those who favor “drill baby drill,” mostly Republicans, and those who favor renewable energy sources, mostly Democrats.
“Politically speaking, the parties have become so ideologically defined on so many issues,” said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the Department of Political Science and International Studies at Stonehill College in Massachusetts.
Ubertaccio said energy is one such issue where politicians have very distinct viewpoints, while the general public usually falls in the grey area.
“The loudest voices within the parties treat it as if it’s an either or situation,” Ubertaccio said.
But Ubertaccio said he believes the energy debate is open for discussion.
Though the general consensus is a new energy source is needed, little has been discussed about the possibility of the two sources working together to power Maryland.
Legislators in Maryland seem to mainly gravitate toward one or the other. With some regional exceptions, that also tends to be the case at the national level, although President Barack Obama has been outspoken about the potential for both energy sources.
A number of Republicans in Maryland want to invest in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial process in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into horizontal wells to break apart rock to access natural gas below the ground.
Companies are eager to use the process to tap the state’s portion of the vast natural gas reserves of the Marcellus Shale, which spans 95,000 square miles from Tennessee to New York and underlies parts of Western Maryland — including all of Garrett County and part of Allegany County.
But many of the state’s Democrats worry about the health and environmental risks of fracking and are pushing for offshore wind, saying it is a cleaner, renewable source with potential to be cheaper in the long-run.
Though costs to get into the wind industry have been projected in the millions and even billions of dollars, many believe oil and natural gas prices will go up in the future, so a renewable source is essential.
On the national level, Ubertaccio said, there seem to be problems with both proposals.
The Republicans seem to be content with repeating the “drill baby drill” slogan as if it’s a policy, he said.
However, the Democratic stance that offshore wind will create new green jobs is lacking data to back it up and comes at a high price, he said.
Potential utility fee hikes associated with offshore wind energy worry legislators in Maryland because they would increase the burden for residents.
Legislation encouraging offshore wind, and calling for studies and delay of fracking was on the agenda in both houses, pushed by a variety of Democratic sponsors. But not much happened.
Gov. Martin O’Malley’s offshore wind bill failed to even get out of the Senate Finance Committee. In addition, a bill requiring fees for studies on fracking to come from energy companies failed to get out of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
A bill to protect landowners against fracking-related water contamination did pass this session.
Those who want to stall the fracking process and shift the focus to offshore wind emphasize the possible pollution to air and water sources.
“If you pollute the drinking supply, you can’t undo that,” said Sen. Rob Garagiola, D-Montgomery.
Though he doesn’t want to rule out fracking altogether, Garagiola said it’s best to take it slow.
“I think that it makes sense to be cautious,” he said
Garagiola said the potential jobs from the manufacturing aspect of offshore wind are another benefit.
“Maryland is ideally located in the Mid-Atlantic,” he said.
As other states get into offshore wind, Maryland could benefit by being able to provide manufacturing jobs and materials if it is one of the first to set up the infrastructure, Garagiola said.
However, it could take years for the turbines to start spinning to make offshore wind a viable energy source.
In addition to the price, the delay is a major reason some are pushing for fracking now.
There is more of a steady supply of natural gas, said Delegate Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, R-Talbot.
“We do have a guarantee that it is here in the state,” she said.
Though wind would help Maryland find a renewable energy source, Haddaway-Riccio said she is worried offshore wind is being endorsed over all other renewable energy sources encouraged under the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, which requires energy companies to generate a certain percentage of electricity from renewable sources.
Some argue the concerns surrounding both offshore wind and fracking could beg a compromise.
Michael Conathan, director of ocean policy for the Center for American Progress, said he sees natural gas as a possible back up for investing in the offshore wind market.
“I don’t think anyone thinks, with the technology today, that you can exclusively power the society on wind energy,” Conathan said.
Conathan said he sees natural gas as a complementary source for wind generation because it’s thought to be cleaner than other fossil fuels.
Sen. Jim Mathias, D-Worcester, is one of the few legislators who says he is open to the possibility of both offshore wind and fracking.
His district encompasses the Ocean City area where turbines would be built, and Mathias was a co-sponsor of last year’s legislation.
“I believe in renewables,” Mathias said.
However, concerns from Delmarva Poultry and the Maryland Farm Bureau over higher utility bills caused Mathias to reconsider his position.
Mathias said assurances from O’Malley to help the agricultural community will factor into his opinion on the prospect of offshore wind in the future.
In addition to generally being in favor of pursuing offshore wind, Mathias said he is also keeping an open mind about fracking.
He said there are definite economic advantages to getting into fracking, but there are some environmental concerns that still have to be explored.
In both cases, Mathias said we still need to “get a grip on the big picture.”