Tuesday, July 19, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Gas drillers Disciplined

Government regulation is a term of contempt in these days of tea-party rebellion—a plot to undermine American business and install socialism. But there are daily reminders of the value of even timid regulation, which is what the Arkansas state government typically provides.

Take yesterday’s news. The state Oil and Gas Commission, which is normally solicitous of the exploration industry, is about to adopt a rule to limit the noise level at the compressor stations that are springing up in the central Arkansas counties where gas is being produced by hydraulic fracturing. Compressor stations are needed at intervals along gas pipelines to keep the gas moving. They run 24 hours a day, and if it is not regulated, the noise can drown out conversation in nearby homes, as some homeowners complained in letters to the commission. The commission’s proposed rule would limit the noise from a compressor station to 55 decibels at the outside of the nearest home, nursing home or business.

A bill that would have made pipeline companies hold the noise down was introduced in the legislature last winter, but a group of legislators calling themselves “the shale caucus” blocked all legislation that would tax the gas companies or hold them responsible in any way for the damage to land, water or roads from the drilling or the disposal of chemical wastes from the wells. So the Oil and Gas Commission stepped in to stem the popular rage. Back in the spring, the agency ordered exploration and disposal companies to stop drilling waste-disposal wells around fault zones after evidence accumulated that they were causing a rash of earthquakes.

On the same day that the commission was reviewing testimony on compressor noise, the state Department of Environmental Quality ordered Poseidon Energy Services of Little Rock to halt its operations and fined the company $14,400 for dumping chemical sludge from fracking wells on open land in White County and just generally violating the state’s weak laws on the handling and disposing of wastes. There had been complaints from residents around where the dumping occurred, but the company and its president, Marcus Devine, never even responded to the complaints when the state agency notified him of them.

Marcus Devine. Does that name ring a bell? It should. Devine was the director of the same Department of Environmental Quality until several years ago, when Gov. Mike Beebe replaced him. Devine had been Gov. Mike Huckabee’s man in charge of protecting Arkansas’ environment. It should come as no surprise that when he started running a business of his own that could despoil the land and water, he would ignore the law.

The department pretty much ignored the law while he was in charge of enforcing it. There was not much way that a poultry operation, an oil and gas exploration company, a mining company or a utility could get in trouble for poisoning the air, land or water. What was good for the industries’ bottom line was good for Arkansas. Devine got his cues from Huckabee, who declared that people who lobbied for environmental safeguards were “whackos.” It was a big failing in an otherwise progressive record on education and taxes.

We have not been exactly impressed with the department under Mike Beebe after Devine’s departure in 2007—it signed off on a poison-puffing coal plant without a whimper—but at least regulation does not seem to be regarded as an evil doctrine. We will take that.