Hefty fines were justified for the blowout of a Pennsylvania natural-gas well, but the state must do more to prevent pollution by drillers.
The Department of Environmental Protection fined EOG Resources Inc. and a subcontractor $400,000 for the accident June 3 in Clearfield County that spewed natural gas, toxic chemicals, and brine for 16 hours. It's the largest penalty imposed for pollution by the state's burgeoning Marcellus Shale gas industry.
DEP Secretary John Hanger correctly noted that carelessness by the drilling firms could have led to far worse consequences. EOG had no policy specifying equipment to prevent blowouts. It had no employees on site certified in controlling wells. And the firm didn't notify the public until four hours after the blowout began.
Nobody was injured in the accident, and groundwater pollution was limited. But unsafe drilling practices uncovered by a special investigator are cause for alarm.
For example, one rig crew worked nearly 35 hours straight just prior to the accident. And after the natural-gas gusher began, workers started up an idle drilling rig at the site, risking a catastrophic fire in a failed effort to seal the leak.
Since the mishap, Hanger has ordered all drillers to have at least two pressure barriers in place on wells to help prevent blowouts. Among other rules, he also ordered all drilling sites to post DEP's 24-hour hotline number for emergencies.
DEP's response to this accident has been speedy and firm. But the state still needs to take more steps proactively to limit possible environmental damage from this rapidly expanding industry.
The Pennsylvania Environmental Council last week called on the legislature to adopt a comprehensive regulatory framework for oil and gas drilling similar to Colorado's. That would allow drillers to submit an application for multiple wells in a specific region, and for public comment by various state agencies and landowners. The procedure takes a more careful, long-range approach to environmental protection than the current permit-by-permit process.
The council also recommended that the state grant DEP full authority to regulate withdrawals of water from surface and underground sources. Drillers pump millions of gallons of water, chemicals, and sand underground to break apart rock and release natural gas.
One positive development last week was the decision by Range Resources Corp., a pioneer in shale gas exploration, to disclose the chemicals it uses in drilling. Other companies should follow suit voluntarily.
Meanwhile, drillers continue to throw around money to preserve a favorable playing field for themselves. Not only have oil and gas firms spent millions on lobbying and on political donations, they've been raiding Harrisburg for more insiders to work for them.
Sarah Battisti, a top aide to Gov. Rendell, has been hired by a British company that recently bought a stake in Pennsylvania's gas fields. Two months ago, a top aide to Hanger at DEP left to join Chesapeake Energy Corp., one of the largest gas exploration firms. And last year, another member of Rendell's inner circle went to work for a drilling company.
In the fall, the legislature will finally decide how to impose a production tax on drillers. Legislators should use that opportunity to also focus efforts on protecting the state's environment.