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Too good?: Marcellus doubts

The Marcellus boom is on, and the whole state hungrily rubs its palms. Drillers promise cheaper fuel, jobs and prosperity, all with little environmental impact. Who wouldn't want that payoff? West Virginia's elected leaders, from the governor to the U.S. Senate and House, to most of the Legislature, are eager to believe it.

It does sound good. New technology allows companies to get at gas supplies they couldn't reach before, creating jobs, wealth and maybe, compared to coal, a fuel that pollutes less.

But consider:

• Things are moving fast, too fast for local and state governments to keep up.

At an April hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in Fairmont, Marshall County Sheriff John Gruzinskas said the area is not prepared for the number of heavy trucks now monopolizing and damaging roads.

Rural residents report dangerous road conditions. More than 300 oil and gas workers have been killed in highway crashes during the last decade, the biggest cause of death in the industry, The New York Times reported. The Marcellus boom is adding even more trucks to the roads, yet oil and gas truck drivers are exempt from safety laws that apply to other haulers and limit how many hours they can be required to work and drive.

• Water supplies are at risk of contamination. While much of the debate has involved whether chemical fluid pumped into rock deep below groundwater supplies presents a danger, a bigger threat is probably from spills or mishaps at or near the surface. What of the concrete seal that is supposed to prevent fracking fluid from entering groundwater on the way down? West Virginia's Marcellus law passed in December does not include tough well casing standards because at the last minute, Gov. Tomblin had that language removed.

• Air pollution from drilling and gas production is another concern. Researchers at the University of Colorado School of Public Health found that air pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing may contribute to acute and chronic health problems for people near drilling sites. They looked at three years of monitoring and found residents within half a mile (2,640 feet) of drilling sites were at greater risk of health problems than those farther away. West Virginia's law allows drilling operations as close as 625 feet from homes.

Experts, including Dr. Alan Ducatman, dean of WVU's School of Public Health, say more study of health effects of fracking is needed, but companies are fighting the release of documents that might help shed light on the potential dangers.

• Will local residents really share in the promised bounty? At that same hearing in Fairmont, Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, said too many local workers and companies don't get a shot at the new business. Those jobs and contracts are filled out-of-state.

Meanwhile, lawmakers seem happy to pass tax credit bills without knowing what they will cost in lost revenue in the future. Drillers managed to make sure West Virginia's law does not require the industry to show the state whether West Virginians are getting hired.

Of course, none of these issues even touches the larger question -- is natural gas really a bridge to future, cleaner alternatives? Or is it a distraction that will keep people on the path to catastrophic climate change?

Also, for some time, climate scientists have warned that global warming must be contained to no more than 2 degrees Celsius to avoid a tipping point that would bring widespread desertification and rising sea levels. The International Energy Agency recently concluded that relying more on natural gas for electricity will lead to a temperature increase of 3.5 degrees. Under current conditions, cheap natural gas will displace coal, which has higher emissions. But it will also displace nuclear and other power sources that have lower emissions.

"Fugitive methane" escaping into the sky from wells is a potent greenhouse gas to worsen global warming.

Even if West Virginia leaders concern themselves only with the short-term welfare of state residents, the Marcellus Shale boom clearly presents immediate public problems that have not been adequately evaluated and resolved.

Last year, a legislative committee did what it was supposed to do. Members of the Legislature and the public spent months crafting legislation that tried to accommodate everyone affected by this activity. In December, Gov. Tomblin weakened that bill and offered a version more favorable to industry. The Legislature passed it during a special session.

More safeguards are needed. State leaders cannot dust their hands, as if the job is done and walk away. Everybody wants a boom. No one is happier at the prospect of more people with jobs and income than we are. But it won't be prosperity if it comes at the expense of health, safety and water.


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