The blowout and spill at a natural-gas well in central Pennsylvania shows the need for tougher monitoring and better communication between regulators and drillers.
It also shows the wisdom of a proposed severance tax on this burgeoning industry, a portion of which would pay for cleaning up hazardous sites.
The accident in rural Clearfield County was bad, but it could have been much worse. No workers were hurt and no homes were damaged when the well operated by EOG Resources Inc. blew out June 3, sending a gusher of natural gas and drilling fluid 75 feet into the air.
The gusher leaked for 16 hours before a containment team capped the well. By that time, an estimated 35,000 gallons of drilling fluid had spilled onto the ground.
Some of the chemical-laced fluid seeped into groundwater and a small stream. The state Department of Environmental Protection ordered the Houston-based company to suspend operations for up to 30 days while the agency investigates what went wrong.
For some reason, the pressure of released gas and drilling fluid overcame a mechanical "blowout preventer" - shades of the BP oil spill - and the spewing began.
One lesson from this accident must be clearer lines of communication between drillers and state officials when an emergency occurs. EOG Resources should have notified authorities more quickly when it lost control of its well.
The blowout occurred about 8 p.m. DEP Secretary John Hanger said EOG employees first attempted to call his agency about two hours later, but got the voice mail of a DEP employee who was on vacation.
The drilling company also left a message at a DEP office, but it was closed for the night. Hanger said EOG should have called DEP's 24-hour emergency hotline.
EOG employees eventually called the local 911 center, which contacted state officials. Prompt notification is important to protect public health and safety, and place independent observers at the accident site as soon as possible.
The number of natural-gas wells in Pennsylvania is growing rapidly, yet it's the only major drilling state without a tax on production.
A proposal by House Democrats, supported by Gov. Rendell, would raise about $142 million annually from drillers. Of that total, $21 million would go to local municipalities affected by drilling.
About $7 million would go to an environmental stewardship fund, $3.5 million to a county conservation fund, and $900,000 annually to a hazardous cleanup fund.
So lucrative are the state's gas deposits that Royal Dutch Shell recently paid $4.7 billion for one Pennsylvania drilling company with extensive leasing rights.
Yet the industry and Senate Republicans continue to promote the fiction that a severance tax might drive drillers out of the state.