Pa. has its own drilling practices to reconsider.
Last week, western Pennsylvania’s Clearfield County was home to a vilely majestic sight: “a 75-foot-tall geyser of natural gas and drilling fluid,” according to the Inquirer. “When we arrived on scene, natural gas and frack fluid was flowing off the well pad and heading toward tributaries,” John Hanger, of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Gas was shooting into the sky.” He added that the 16-hour-long surge “could have been ‘catastrophic’ to life and property in the area.”
This There Will Be Blood tableau came courtesy of Enron (now calling itself “EOG Resources”)—one of 65 natural-gas companies hunched over the state’s Marcellus Shale deposits. Last Monday, Hanger announced a “comprehensive investigation” of the incident and halted Enron’s Pennsylvania operations. In a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak wrote, “This accident highlights the significant dangers of these drilling operations, which are expanding in Pennsylvania at an unprecedented rate and scale.”
Gov. Rendell offered a teaspoon of his own criticism, saying that he was “very concerned about what happened.” As well he should be, as the gusher was tangentially his fault. Since radically expanding drilling in 2008—the “unprecedented rate and scale” invoked by Sestak—the governor has largely ignored its inherent ecological hazards. To him, expediency has been the thing: the more Enrons to pay up, move in and get pumping, the better. Given such Boom Town conditions, it should be no surprise that we’ve already had a spill.
It’s impossible not to draw similarities between the Enron “geyser” and the tragedy in the Gulf. Both featured a failed blowout preventer and “compromised seal integrity.” Despite the risk involved, neither had been foreseen nor seriously accounted for. In both cases, company executives expressed spurious regret. Of course, there are also glaring differences: The estimated 35,000 gallons spewed in Clearfield is a fraction of the million-plus gallons entering the Gulf each day. And the damage done by Enron, according to a DEP spokesman, was “minimal”; the same cannot be said of BP. For Pennsylvanians, though, the most significant difference is this: It is still early enough in the Marcellus Shale experiment to learn from last week’s mistake.
Oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is a long-established business. The first well was dug there in 1946, with the number of platforms reaching 3,858 by 2006 (due to a government-imposed moratorium, 33 have been idled). President Obama has promised to change the way business is done on those rigs, last month telling a San Francisco crowd that “we have to revisit how these oil companies are operating.” But the conditions that caused the BP disaster were abetted by a deep coziness between drillers and regulators—an amity that mere “revisiting” won’t get rid of. As The New York Times reported in May, “At least seven new permits for various types of drilling and five environmental waivers have been granted” since the April 20 Gulf explosion. “Records also indicate that … federal regulators have granted at least 19 environmental waivers for gulf drilling projects … most of which were for types of work like that on the Deepwater Horizon.” Even now, the party continues.
In Pennsylvania, the Marcellus party has only just begun; such execrable patterns are not so deeply set. We are at the 1946 stage of our shale’s exploitation. And though the process has so far been dispiriting (the rush to drill, the lack of transparency and oversight), we still have the opportunity to get it right—or, rather, as right as it can be. Last Sunday, an early warning shot was fired 75 feet into the air. Harrisburg has ignored that warning—and continues to smirk at legitimate environmental concerns—at its state’s own peril.
So will Rendell take this chance to do right by Pennsylvania’s environment? To make all 65 producers, not just Enron, prove their competence? As of now, it doesn’t seem likely. He sees the Clearfield rupture not as an occasion to prevent future spills, but as a tool to push legislators to impose a drilling tax. “‘We needed a severance tax even before the accident,’” Rendell told the Inquirer . In the newspaper’s words, “He hopes the accident will mean the industry will ‘stop battling the tax.’” Certainly, the tax is important and necessary. But, the governor forgets, so are lakes and streams.
Some believe that the gulf spill will force us to rethink how we obtain our fuel, and I certainly hope they’re right. Ultimately, though, despite the daily-unfolding horror, such optimism feels baseless. Until the last ounce of crude or natural gas has been sucked from the earth, there’s simply too much money at stake. And whether it’s the Gulf of Mexico or an obscure Pennsylvania county, there is no crisis too large—or too small—to overcome all that cash. Unfortunately, it’s kind of the American way.
As Rebecca Roter stood on Broad Street, heavy clouds threatening rain overhead, she brandished a bottle of murky water labeled “Bradford County.” Her question was: Would you want to drink this? The answer from the dozens gathered outside the Doubletree Hotel yesterday, was a resounding “No fracking way.”
President Obama has given the Department of Energy 90 days to look at ways to improve the safety of drilling for natural gas. The Environmental Protection Agency has already started an extensive review of how drilling affects drinking water.