By now, we all know that much of the Chesapeake Bay watershed lies atop the Marcellus Shale formation, arguably the granddaddy of natural gas supplies in the United States.
Estimates of the economic value of this gas, the need for cleaner burning domestic fuels and the potential for job and wealth creation in some of the economically challenged rural regions of the mid-Atlantic are exciting and grow day by day.
The drilling companies, many of which have been found to be illegally injecting diesel fuel into the ground during the drilling and extracting processes, assure us not to worry. Others, including the EPA, Pennsylvania Land Trust, Delaware River Basin Commission, Penn Future, Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and the cities of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Buffalo and New York, as well as many state and federal legislators and bureaucrats, have expressed concerns. Some worry about the impact on drinking water supplies, while others focus on added environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, the process used to recover natural gas.
Here is the problem. The Bush administration all but gave a free pass to the drilling companies when it exempted the chemicals used in the drilling process, including known carcinogens, from federal regulatory review. It is called the Halliburton loophole, and it strips the EPA of its authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing.
The lobbying continues, at the state as well as federal level. Testifying before the Maryland House Environmental Matters Committee on Feb. 9, John Quigley, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said, "The industry employs a lot of lobbyists and has documented spending in the millions of dollars...They spend a lot of money in campaign contributions to influence the general assembly...They have been able to buy a big microphone."
To date, the states have not put adequate water or air protection programs in place and have not required the companies to pay for infrastructure or environmental remediation costs. Furthermore, when violations are discovered, companies receive little more than a slap on the wrist.
One has to wonder why it is so hard for us to learn from history. We have seen the preventable damage of oil drilling and coal extraction. Human lives have been lost and the environment desecrated. Why don't we take the time now to investigate how the gas can be extracted in ways that will not do similar harm?
While many of us might hope that drilling in the Marcellus Shale could be suspended until more research into potential impacts is completed, it will not. So at the very least, let's use a precautionary principle and require that all permits across all states mandate the most sophisticated controls possible on the drilling protocols.
If we fail to do this, potentially catastrophic and irreversible consequences are possible. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation calls for an approach that uses the very best scientific knowledge to allow for economic development while providing the necessary safeguards to protect human health and the environment.
Natural gas has some real benefits compared to coal and oil, and the domestic reserves can have enormous balance of trade and homeland security advantages. This time, we can do it right, but only if we take the time to do it right.