Just so much gas
We also believe that anyone with more than a perfunctory interest in safety would be open to the possibility that the answer to the question “How can drilling be done safely?” might be “It can’t.” But in general, the official attitude seems to be: we don’t have the time or the money to find out whether this activity is safe, so let’s just cross our fingers and hope for the best. We have just seen the results of this type of “policy” in two calamities of global proportion: last year’s BP disaster and the recent nuclear catastrophe in Japan. And the failure of regulatory systems that enabled these disasters brings us to another problem: even if it is technically possible to drill safely, do we have the oversight and enforcement capabilities—and the political will—to ensure that safety?
A growing litany of incidents related to gas drilling, from The New York Times-documented problems with wastewater disposal to last week’s blowback accident in Bradford County, PA, suggests that the answer may be “no.” At the very least, safety is vulnerable to the whims of a state’s incumbent administration—making DRBC’s deference to the states in its proposed regulations that much riskier. Governor Tom Corbett, for instance, has effectively defanged Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) by giving his economic czar, an ex-industry man, the power to expedite any activities that might create jobs regardless of any other agency’s wishes. He has also issued an order forbidding the DEP from issuing violation orders against Marcellus Shale drillers without having them reviewed by one of his henchmen.
Until and unless we see officials truly grappling with the questions we have raised above, it’s hard to believe that they actually give a hang about safety, lip-service notwithstanding. Schneiderman has at least made a start. It would be nice to see others join him. President Obama, for example, extolled unconventional shale gas plays in a recent speech with the caveat “we have to make sure we’re doing it safely.” So, Mr. President, how about seeing to it that studies as to the safety of modern gas drilling in unconventional shale formations—and the regulators charged with overseeing it—are funded? How about a backup energy plan, in case it actually can’t be done safely? Because otherwise, your words are just so much, well, gas.