Texaco in Maryland


It is difficult, perhaps even intellectually incompatible, for the state of Maryland to advocate -- as it did -- a stringent agreement with neighboring states to protect the Chesapeake Bay and then to give Texaco the OK to drill a mile and half from the Potomac River. But this, unfortunately, is not that simple a matter.

First, Texaco is proposing merely a test well to determine whether there is a substantial enough supply of either gas or oil for the company to run a full-blown drilling operation. Moreover, Texaco says that if it finds anything, the likelihood is it will be gas -- which has a far less ominous environmental and psychological implications than oil.

While all this is true, there is no assurance Texaco won't find oil, or that it won't expand the operation if it does. And even though gas does not spill or leave birds covered with oily slime, it is folly to think the construction of drilling rigs and roads to service the industry would have no impact on the bay.

Texaco has been careful to lay out a stringent plan for protecting the environment during its test drilling and has put up its track record in Virginia, where it undertook similar exploratory drilling, as collateral. But what if there really is a big find and Texaco goes into major production? There is no legal requirement to use the costly non-toxic chemicals it proposes for the test well.

All this must be balanced, of course, against the most compelling issue: economic gain, which in itself is an untenable argument. Drilling jobs, for instance, likely wouldn't go to untrained Marylanders but rather to experienced crews from out of state. And the revenue benefits, weighed against the need to provide infrastructure to sustain the operation, are anyone's guess.

Texaco may indeed have a workable proposal that could benefit Maryland. But neither the state nor Charles County, where the test drilling is proposed, should blindly embrace the plan on promises alone. Approval of the zoning and permit changes required to get this thing going ought to be slow and cautious, weighing the potential risks to the bay against possible economic gains -- recognizing, foremost, that we've accomplished a great deal in this regard and that any activity which undermines that cannot, justifiably, be sanctioned.

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