Tuesday, March 15, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Protection from drillers

A large bunch of Arkansas legislators announced last week that they were forming a “shale caucus” of mostly Republicans, but a few Democrats. They will collaborate to see that the gas-production companies that exploit the gas in the large shale play across Arkansas are protected from the state government—that is, the people.

They immediately shouted down a bill that would have made the big Texas and Oklahoma companies pay a few more taxes from their enormous profits on the gas to pay a little toward the restoration of the highways, roads and bridges that the drilling and auxiliary rigs are tearing up.

It is a measure of our collective state of mind that the people needing protection are the gas companies and not the landowners, the nearby homeowners, the state’s taxpayers, the vast swath of people who are adversely affected by the drilling, and the land and streams.

Now we know what they got together to protect the companies from. Seven bills would enumerate a few protections for landowners and neighbors in the swath of the drillers. Now there is a caucus—a much smaller one—dedicated to achieving some balance between the interests of the energy companies and the public.

• SB 314 would require buffer zones between drilling sites and homes and require an energy company to give landowners full disclosure and notice of its activities on their property and accurate information about their rights as mineral or surface owners.

• HB 1396 would make the gas companies reveal to state regulatory agencies the volumes of water they use in drilling and the source of it, the chemicals they use, the quantity of water and chemicals that remain in the ground after the drilling and the disposal methods for all drilling and fracturing chemicals.

• HB 1399 would require the companies to reduce noise from drilling to below 55dB at 1,000 yards from a house during the day and 45dB at night.

• HB 1395 would require agencies to periodically monitor the air quality around wells that are near homes or concentrated in small geographic areas.

• HB 1394 would require gas companies to follow best-management practices when building roads, pipelines and drilling pads, strengthen casing standards to prevent contamination of ground water, direct the state to adopt strict requirements for building, maintaining and closing the toxic waste pits around wells to prevent leakage and runoff into creeks, and hold gas companies responsible for testing water supplies near drill sites for contamination.

• HB 1392 would require inspections of wells at least annually and more often during drilling and fracturing when millions of gallons of chemicals and contaminated water are handled on site.

• HB 1393 would increase assurance bonds to pay for closing and cleaning up abandoned or idle wells so that the taxpayers do not become responsible for the costs.

Does that sound so dastardly that Chesapeake and Southwestern Energy should need protection? But in this brave new legislature, populated by tea-party and industry minions, the bills have little chance for passage. The rare legislator who dares support any of them will pay a price in the next campaign.

Ernie Dumas writes editorials for The Leader.