IN A FRANTIC race to tap the vast natural resource under our feet - namely, natural gas - Gov. Corbett and state agencies are letting industry dictate the terms of the game. How else to explain the countless lapses in oversight and regulation that are allowing drillers to continually foul our air, land and water? Yes, the rush to drill absent foresight and proper planning could turn Pennsylvania's gas rush into a race to the bottom where environmental protection is concerned.
Signs that oversight as well as adequate resourcing of Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) professionals has not kept up with the pace of drilling have been piling up of late. The recent report by the state Auditor General's Office faults DEP with antiquated record-keeping systems, poor oversight of well inspections and drilling waste, and failing to track and respond to public concerns about drilling activities, including complaints that drilling has fouled water supplies.
"DEP is underfunded, understaffed and inconsistent in how it approaches shale-gas development," Auditor General Eugene DePasquale noted on the release of his office's report. "It's like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose."
We need more cops on the beat at DEP.
Equally concerning is the flip-flop routine at the state Department of Health, where two retired employees said that they were forbidden from talking to the public about health issues related to the Marcellus Shale. Instead, department employees were given a list of buzzwords that signaled which calls to avoid, a list that included "gas," "fracking" and "soil contamination." The department originally denied the existence of the list but later backtracked.
More backward logic permeated the decision by the Corbett administration not to fund a statewide health registry that would track the health of those in drilling areas, a registry recommended by the governor's own Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission and his first secretary of health.
Again, where are cops on the beat at the Department of Health?
In addition to the plentiful errors of commission regarding drilling activities in the state, there is also an error of omission that could be far more significant than the rest. The specter of fugitive methane emissions looms large and is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to natural-gas drilling and its impacts on global warming and climate change.
Methane is the main component of natural gas, but it is also an extremely potent, short-lived climate pollutant. Air-quality monitoring studies conducted at sites throughout the Marcellus Shale show that methane leaks from drilling, processing and distribution equipment. These leaks are not only a waste of a valuable resource, but they also contribute to current warming trends. What's more, when methane leaks, so do other air toxins, such as the compounds that create smog and related unhealthy air conditions. If you feel like you've been choking on hot, smoggy air during the last few Philly summers, well, you have.
The city recently received a failing grade in the American Lung Association's annual State of the Air report.
So, where are the cops on the beat in the Corbett administration who should be demanding that methane emissions be addressed, controlled and regulated? These are the same folks who are obliged to protect our health, welfare and the environment as noted in Article 1, Sec. 27 of the Pennsylvania constitution: "The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment."
Natural-gas drilling is not likely to go away any time soon in Pennsylvania. But that doesn't mean that we should tap our shale-gas reserves blindly and without regard for the negative consequences with which we are already dealing. Improved accountability gives the industry clear rules to follow, ensures that citizens can express their concerns and puts the government in charge of guarding this finite natural resource.
Let's dispense with the pandering to industry and replace it with a solid blue line of cops on the beat who will look out for Pennsylvania and Pennsylvanians where our air, water and land are concerned.