Friday, December 10, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Regulators do their job

We-Never-Thought-We’d-Live-to-See-the-Day Dept.: An Arkansas regulatory agency leads the nation in oversight of a polluting industry.

No one will call it a crackdown, as some are calling a few of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s recent rulings on horizontal gas drilling, but the state Oil and Gas Commission deserves people’s gratitude for adopting a rule this week requiring operators in the Fayetteville shale gas play to reveal all the chemicals they use in the fracturing process.

The agency did not stop the exploration companies from using benzene, methane or other poisonous chemicals when they blast water and sand through shale to release natural gas, but it said they had to tell people exactly what went into each production well and each storage well they drill and in what proportions. Even minuscule amounts must be reported because even trace amounts of some chemicals are extremely dangerous.

Wyoming and Arkansas are the first states to require the disclosure, but much of the country is expected to follow suit. Hydraulic fracturing, which opened north-central Arkansas to gas production on a huge scale six years ago, has set off a drilling boom from New York to Louisiana in the south and Montana in the northwest. It is an economic bonanza for many in the shale regions, bringing income for the owners of mineral rights and new jobs, but also new alarms about environmental and road destruction and water contamination. Our neighbors to the north have not escaped it.

The state Department of Environmental Quality has investigated a few complaints about contamination of water wells around shale wells but—surprise!—has not been able to link fracturing to nearby poisoned wells. In Texas, where the shale development began around Fort Worth, the Arkansas agency’s counterpart, the Texas Railroad Commission, has found no nexus either.

But to the Railroad Commission’s and the industry’s consternation, the Environmental Protection Agency this week found that there were dangerous levels of benzene and other chemicals in two water wells serving homes near well sites and it connected the poisons to the drilling. The EPA said the contamination violated the Safe Drinking Water Act and ordered an immediate remedy. The Texas regulatory officials, as everyone expected, denounced the EPA’s meddling.

The disclosures of what exactly goes into each exploration will give landowners, neighbors, the Department of Environmental Quality and, yes, the EPA the information they need to get to the truth. The industry says there is no connection between the drilling and water contamination because the wells typically go far deeper than the aquifer that provides drinking water. They may be right but we need to know. In Texas, the EPA found the exact compounds from the gas wells in the drinking water.

The Oil and Gas Commission moved swiftly on another, more speculative front. It halted new permits for disposal wells that store fracturing fluids for a month while it tries to determine if there is any basis for widespread concerns that the wells may be causing the eruption of minor earthquakes in the drilling zone this year. That sounds dubious to us, but geoscience is far beyond our ken.

But it is heartening that there is a state regulatory agency that seems to have the public interest at heart and not merely the agency’s constituent industries.