Go slow on shale drilling

The Marcellus shale natural gas deposit could prove a vital resource for this nation's energy future. Scientists have estimated that the Appalachians may yield hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, at a value of $1 trillion.

Maryland could have a piece of that action. The Marcellus runs under the western part of the state, perhaps a mile below the surface. It can potentially be extracted by a controversial technique known as hydraulic fracturing, where water is used to break up rock and allow the gas to be released.

It is tempting to want to see domestic natural gas production flourish, not only because of the money and jobs it might bring to the state but because gas can potentially help make this country less dependent on other more problematic fossil fuels. Nevertheless, some caution is in order.

That was the message heard last week from John Quigley, the former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. He is no opponent of natural gas, but he sees "complex and daunting" environmental consequences to Marcellus extraction.

Appearing before the House of Delegates' Environmental Matters Committee, Mr. Quigley said his state's experience with the industry so far should sound a cautionary tale to others. Already, Pennsylvania has seen drinking water wells contaminated, leaks of wastewater pits, well blowouts, explosions and fires. Altogether, there have been thousands of recorded violations of environmental regulations, he told the committee.

Clearly, natural gas is not the only precious resource at stake in this debate. Clean water is, too. The industry claims that the potential for the water and chemicals used in fracturing to be released into the groundwater is small and the technique has been in use for decades, but the risk posed to the environment is too great to be treated lightly.

Nor is groundwater contamination the only problem that has surfaced in Pennsylvania. Questions have also arisen as to whether the state had appropriate regulations in place to protect local communities from other problems associated with gas development, ranging from heavy truck traffic to the influx of out-of-state workers.

That's why legislation pending in Annapolis that would slow down new natural gas production in Maryland is a sensible step. The measure would require the Maryland Department of the Environment to consider many of the environmental issues raised in Pennsylvania and involve local governments in the decision-making process before any permits could be granted.

Why not learn from the mistakes made in Pennsylvania and elsewhere? The nation will need natural gas years into the future as much as it does today — or next month or next year. Better to do it right than to allow big energy companies to exploit Maryland's natural resources first and have questions asked later.

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