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DN Editorial: Tracking fracking

Besides an extraction tax, we need some regulatory oversight

Aerial view of a Marcellus Shale drilling operation near Waynesburg, PA ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer  )
Aerial view of a Marcellus Shale drilling operation near Waynesburg, PA ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )Read moreMichael Bryant/Staff photographe

WE SUPPORT newly elected governor Tom Wolf for restoring a moratorium on natural-gas hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on state parklands. His action last week reversed a move by Gov. Tom Corbett, a guy who never met a fracker he didn't like, who lifted an earlier ban on the activity less than a year ago.

Allowing fracking in state parks was not so much letting the fox into the henhouse, but cooking the chicken and frying the eggs for him. And while we applaud the outcome, we wish that such a critical environmental issue wasn't subject to the political ping-pong game that has marked gas extraction in this state and elsewhere.

Fracking - which shoots powerful chemicals and water into the ground to break up shale and release natural gas as well as oil - continues to raise concerns about environmental and public-safety impact, including water-supply safety. New York recently banned it outright, for example, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo citing health concerns.

According to a new Pew Research Center study that measures the public's and scientists' views on science issues, only a minority of both favor increased fracking. Still, the country as a whole is in the middle of a fracking boom, mirrored by Pennsylvania's own explosion of growth since 2008. There are now so many states tapping into their own shale formations that a debate has begun over the need for federal regulations. That's an important debate to have.

The patchwork of laws from state to state, the inconsistent oversight and regulation here in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and the scale and speed of the drilling boom demand more cautious and careful scrutiny of long-term effects on humans and on the environment. Yet, there's another environment to consider that could push the debate over fracking further underground.

As anyone who has filled up a gas tank lately or paid a gas heating bill can attest, there have clearly been benefits to the boom, with increased supply driving down prices. We should recognize, though, that there's something dangerous about driving around with cheap gasoline prices: It can lull us into thinking we have solved our long-term energy problems. But we haven't. Market prices are destined to fluctuate, and although we may have a relative glut at this moment, that moment isn't destined to last.

That's why we hope that the governor moves with equal alacrity on his support of a tax on fracking. This is likely to launch a long battle, since even the pro-fracking Gov. Ed Rendell failed to get an extraction tax passed in the General Assembly before leaving office. The extraction fees that are now paid by those drilling in Pennsylvania certainly help - as of 2013, they have generated about $630 million. But these fees are a fraction of what the state should be getting for laying bare its land, environment and public safety in the long term.

Fracking in Pennsylvania is not likely to slow down anytime soon. And athough Wolf has said that he wants the fracking tax to help support schools, a portion also should be put aside for better oversight, regulation and study of the long-term effects. As a leader in natural-gas extraction, Pennsylvania also has the opportunity to take the lead in developing smarter energy policies that can provide a better grounding for generations in the future - who will be paying far more at the pump than we do now.