A mighty cheer rose from the Senate gallery when lawmakers gave final passage to a bill that environmentalists had been seeking for years. Some citizens even held up their cell phones to record the happy moment on video.
All that remained for the bill that would permanently ban fracking would be the signature of the measure's stunning 11th-hour supporter, the governor.
But the governor of what? I'll tell you later in this column. Just kidding, I'll tell you now. But first I'll tell you who it wasn't: It wasn't Gov. Tom Wolf, the leader of the frack-happy commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Nope, this was Maryland, our friendly neighbor on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line. And here's the most surprising part: The governor next door who's banning fracking is a pro-business Republican, Larry Hogan.
It wasn't long ago that the GOP's Hogan talked just like Pennsylvania's political leaders -- Democrat and Republican -- in that his pupils turned into giant dollar signs over the notion of extracting millions of barrels of natural gas from the mountainous western sliver of Maryland. When Hogan successfully ran for that state's top job in 2014, he called its underground energy reserves "an economic gold mine."
But Larry Hogan is a very smart politician -- as you'd expect from a Republican who somehow won a high-profile statewide election in deep-blue Maryland. Over the next three years, he saw the headlines on fracking: That wastewater disposal has been linked to swarms of earthquakes in Oklahoma and elsewhere, that a growing number of studies showed water pollution and health concerns for people living near drilling pads, and that methane leaks meant that fracking wasn't even helping on the climate change front.
A couple of weeks ago, Hogan shocked everyone by announcing that he would sign a total statewide ban on fracking if the bill wending its way through the Maryland legislature reached his desk: Said the governor: "The possible environmental risks of fracking simply outweigh any potential benefits…. I’ve decided that we must take the next step and move from virtually banning fracking (Maryland has had a moratorium in place) to actually banning fracking.”
You probably know that it's been a different story here in Pennsylvania, which over the last decade has become one of the nation's top natural-gas-producing states while allowing the big energy companies to run roughshod over the political process. Most voters here in the Keystone State expected major changes in environmental policy when Tom Wolf was elected governor in 2014, the same time that Hogan rolled to victory on our southern border; indeed, a severance tax on fracking that had been taken off the table by the stridently pro-gas GOP Gov. Tom Corbett was a cornerstone of the Wolf agenda.
Since Wolf's election, at least one survey named him America's most liberal governor -- but it hasn't really played out that way on the issue of fracking. To Wolf's credit, he initially moved to step up regulation of the industry that had sagged under Corbett. But his plan to pay for a major boost in school funding with the fracking tax also meant that Wolf would be economically wedded to the continued exploitation of fossil fuels in Pennsylvania, even as studies laid out the risky public health impacts and as concern rose over the role those fuels play in climate change.
And the Wolf administration also underestimated how deeply the Republican-led legislature was in the back pocket of Big Energy, which has donated literally millions of dollars to the re-election coffers of our state lawmakers. When they massively resisted Wolf's first budget and his other proposals, and refused to touch the fracking tax, the governor quietly altered his approach. His initial, hyper-aggressive top environmental regulator was forced out. A massive fine for fracking pollution was undone, and the governor's office signaled a softer approach on regulation.
And so far this year, at the very same moment that the Republican governor next door was announcing that fracking was too dangerous for his constituents, "America's most liberal governor" seems to be doubling-down on a fracked-up future for Pennsylvania.
Just last week, the Wolf administration went around touting a report boasting that the state can support four more giant ethane cracker plants like the one now under construction in Beaver County -- a move that would make the Pennsylvania economy more dependent on fracking than ever. A couple of days later, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection approved two new large fracking wasterwater disposal wells -- the kind linked to those Oklahoma earthquakes -- despite furious opposition from local residents. "It's the little guys who are getting stomped on," one neighbor of the proposed well in Northeastern Pennsylvania said, "and I'm tired of it."
Simply put, Pennsylvania is going the wrong direction on fracking and fossil fuels. True, things here aren't as bad as in Washington, where the Trump administration seems set on destroying the planet with new rules aimed at bringing back pre-1970 levels of smog and exploiting every drop of buried oil while falsely exploiting the hopes of coal miners that their jobs are coming back.
But states can take the lead on saving the planet. Fracking has now been banned outright on our southern border and our northern border, by New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo -- while Pennsylvania remains a grim oasis of leaking methane and portable water buffaloes wedged in between. In the popular parlance of Phillies fans everywhere, why can't us?
If Gov. Wolf is so worried about economic development, he should know that clean energy -- i.e., alternative sources like wind and solar -- is currently creating many more jobs than fossil fuels, and that gap is only going to get larger. Pennsylvania should ban fracking -- but that clearly won't happen in the near future, not with so many members of our thoroughly corrupt legislature still milking the cash cow of Big Oil and Gas.
But in the age of climate change, Pennsylvania does need environmental leadership to place the future focus on manufacturing solar panels and windmills, and not on cracking ethane, and to stand up and stop the big gas companies from permanently scarring our rural communities. There's not many days one can say this, but Gov. Wolf, you really should follow the lead of your Republican next-door neighbor.