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DN Editorial: Drill seeker

A.G. Kane is right to take on frackers' toxic contempt

WE APPLAUD Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane's decision to bring criminal charges against XTO, a gas driller, for a few reasons. First among them is that Kane's move is a strike against a culture.

Not the culture of "Welcome to Pennsylvania - Drill wherever you want," but the culture of major corporations inflicting damage - human, environmental, financial - and making the problem go away with cash or a wrist slap.

Consider, for example, the West Virginia coal-mine explosion that killed 29 workers in 2010. The U.S. Justice Department did not press any criminal charges against Massey Energy, but opted for cash settlements.

Or the mother of corporate damage - the near collapse of the economy brought on by Wall Street in 2008, for which no criminal charges have been filed against any financial company.

This culture suggests a separate justice system for corporations and the rest of us.

Don't get us wrong: We don't paint Marcellus Shale operators with the broad brushstrokes of Wall Street bad guys. They have brought jobs to the state and they actually produce something: an energy source that might reduce our reliance on other sources.

And yet. The extraction of energy from the earth doesn't come without a cost. It's a cost that Pennsylvania state leaders have been all too willing to waive for the drilling industry, by refusing to tax drilling output and not funding robust regulation.

Since 2008, the state has seen a gold rush of drilling; we now have more than 50,000 gas-producing wells, trailing only West Virginia and Texas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

That rapid growth is worrisome in light of the potential environmental impact of drilling. The gas extraction process, called "fracking," releases gas by shooting water, sand and toxic chemicals deep into the earth. Assessing and mitigating the potential threat to our health and environment could take the kind of time - years or decades - that a gold rush doesn't allow.

In the Kane case, XTO, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, presided over fracking wastewater tanks that released more than 50,000 gallons of wastewater from the Marquardt well site in Lycoming County onto the ground and into the waters in 2010. Tanks storing wastewater were left unguarded and unlocked, and valve caps were found to be removed from a number of tanks. A state Department of Environmental Protection inspector found a tank spilling water.

XTO had settled with the feds and the state, but a recent analysis by Clean Water Action shows the Department of Environmental Protection to be soft on penalizing, fining or issuing violations. As part of its federal settlement, XTO also agreed to a $20 million plan to recycle more wastewater and install alarms.

The state has different standards than the feds, and Kane is right to keep the legal heat on. And those who suspect Kane of fracking the Corbett administration by shopping for a newsworthy case should note that the XTO case was referred to the A.G.'s office long before Kane arrived as A.G. - when our gas-happy governor had her job.