Matter of Trust: Gas drillers Must Let the EPA Assess the Risks

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
9 March 2011

Tom Ridge, the front man for Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale gas drilling industry, struck the right note last week at a public roundtable in Canonsburg.

Three days after an accident and fire injured three workers at a gas compressor station in Washington County, the former governor said the industry must be more forthcoming in providing the public with information. His audience included state legislators, township supervisors and congressional aides. At one point Mr. Ridge said that even "if there are missteps, [the industry should] acknowledge it, correct it."

Pennsylvanians, many of whom have mixed emotions if not outright fear of this energy and environmental phenomenon, are all in favor of that. Which is why it was disturbing to read a report in Friday's New York Times that the drilling industry had worked quietly behind the scenes in the Reagan administration for looser controls -- a practice that may be happening all over again.

The report said that Congress in the 1980s was considering tougher regulations for handling oil and gas drilling wastes, but that pressure from the White House Office of Legal Counsel caused research findings from the Environmental Protection Agency to be altered before they were sent to lawmakers in 1987. "It was like the science didn't matter," study author Carla Greathouse told the Times.

Yet science does matter, as home-owners with polluted wells can attest. The newspaper quoted scientists and lawyers at today's EPA who worry that history could be repeating itself, as the agency conducts a broad study into deep gas drilling and its risks. Internal documents indicate that the scope of the study "was narrowed after pressure by the industry and allies in Congress, as well as budget and time constraints," the Times reported.

Still, after seven Pennsylvania rivers were found to have no radiation problems related to Marcellus Shale drilling, the EPA has said it will take a more active role in reviewing permits and environmental impacts in the state.

That brings us back to the message of Tom Ridge.

If the industry truly wants to build trust, it must be open with the public. To us that means not only when there are mishaps, but also when EPA scientists want to study the potential hazards and prescribe the necessary degree of oversight.

It's one thing for Marcellus Shale drilling to work for the industry. It will work for Pennsylvanians only when they're kept informed, their health and environment are protected and regulators can keep a watchful eye.