Heading off Texas-size pollution woes from Pa. drilling

The bonanza that state officials expect from drilling natural gas out of the Marcellus Shale region may come with more costs than expected.

This comes as Pennsylvanians still try to fathom Gov. Rendell's retreat from his decision to do what every other state does with shale gas - tax it.

A 175-foot tall natural gas drilling rig in Lycoming County.

Getting gas from shale involves a process called "fracturing" that uses highly pressurized and chemically treated water. Some environmentalists believe fracturing leaves local streams polluted.

Now comes reports out of the Barnett Shale region in Texas that this industry also might be the source of toxic air pollution. That's after the town of Dish, Texas, paid for its own air quality study because so many residents complained about bad odors.

Dish, population 350, was known as Clark until four years ago when the town changed its name in exchange for 10 years of free satellite service for every home from the Dish company. OK, maybe the people of Dish can be bought. But their good health is too high a price.

So, in September they paid a private company to test the air around the town, which is located near several compressor facilities that process shale gas and pressurize it for pipeline shipment. Wolf Eagle Environmental Engineers found high levels of 15 chemicals, including xylene, naphthalene, and benzene, a carcinogen, as well as sulfides and other neurotoxins.

The companies mining the shale gas near Dish deny they are the source of any air pollution, but the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has decided to do its own study. Results may not come until the end of the year.

Pointing to the Dish study and others, the Natural Resources Defense Council has asked Congress to tighten gaps in the federal Clean Air Act to address emissions from fossil-fuel exploration and production activities.

In the meantime, Pennsylvanians living near the Marcellus Shale must count on the state Department of Environmental Protection to ensure their safety.

DEP officials contend that recent budget cuts won't hamper their monitoring of natural gas extraction and related activities. Maybe not. But the agency probably could have enhanced that work with revenue that Rendell and lawmakers decided the state doesn't need right now.

The governor's rationale was that he didn't want to hurt a fledgling industry that has been set back by the recession. The pace of mining activity in the Marcellus region, however, suggests that it's doing just fine - and it's going to do even better.

Taxing shale gas in Pennsylvania shouldn't be delayed too long. That's another lesson from Texas.