Editorial: Unreported fracking spills call for higher fines

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

Pennsylvania is far from a new player in the energy game. After all, the state was the site of the first oil boom in the United States — following the discovery at Oil Creek, Pa. in 1859 — and its rich coal deposits became a catalyst for the Industrial Revolution.

Pennsylvania should be all too aware of the risks associated with diving headfirst into new energy sources — the rate at which we burned coal turned Pittsburgh’s skies black. Moreover, careless practices with oil have led to spills and the degradation of our environment.

Yet, energy practices within the state continue to err on the side of profit over caution.

In comes the new energy boom in Marcellus Shale, where Pennsylvania once again is charging ahead. Of course, fracking — the process of drilling and injecting fluid into shale rock to release the natural gas inside — is not as dirty as coal or oil, on the surface.

But, during the fracking process for natural gas, methane and other chemicals can seep through the system and into nearby ground water — on average, methane concentrations are 17 times higher in drinking water wells near fracturing sites than in normal wells, according to earthworksaction.org.

This is preventable, but many fracking companies aren’t willing to pay the extra costs associated with prevention, which is where the state comes in.

Ideally, the state spots out spills and then fines the fracking company responsible, which then incentivizes them from spilling again. Thus, giving companies a reason to be more careful.

But, according to a Post-Gazette analysis, from 2005 to June 1 of this year, only a third of spills were originally spotted by a state inspector.

“I think the number [of spills found by inspectors] raise a legitimate question that needs to be answered,” George Jugovic, a former Southwest Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) bureau chief, said. “If the identification of spills 30 percent of the time is dependent on DEP inspectors being on-site, how many spills are we missing?”

There are two main problems: One, the state doesn’t have enough inspectors. And two, the inspectors already with the DEP don’t have much of an incentive to pressure gas companies into complying with state regulations.

Many of Pennsylvania’s DEP employees end up working for gas companies after starting their careers with the DEP. According to several Pennsylvania politicians, 30 to 40 former DEP inspectors have gone into the industry in the past five years.

This makes it difficult for inspectors to properly police fracking companies, seeing that they will one day be working for them. No one wants to start off on a bad note with his or her future boss.

Additionally, DEP inspectors are highly underpaid. They typically make about $35,000 to $65,000 annually — while inspectors employed by companies make double that.

Not only does this cause many DEP inspectors to leave for higher paying jobs in the private sector, but it provides them with less incentive to do their job properly and effectively.

The lack of effective inspections placed upon fracking companies is coupled with the proportionally low fines placed upon them if they actually do spill — ExxonMobil was fined $100,000 by the Obama administration in 2010 for a leak that contaminated a tributary of the Susquehanna River.

The price of a fine is compared to the price of improving wastewater management systems, which can be up to millions of dollars. So for many companies, it’s cheaper to take the fine for a spill than improve its equipment.

To prevent future spills, inspectors should be kept on board and incentivize company adherence to environmental regulations, which should include dramatically higher fines for spills.

Higher fines will give companies the motivation they need to prevent spills from ever occurring, rather than seeing them as an inevitable. It will cause them to spend money on better equipment, because that will then be the cheaper option.

Plus, higher fines could mean higher income for state inspectors. The more the state makes off fracking companies, the more it can pay for its employees. This will also give inspectors more of a reason to be extremely vigilant when looking for spills, considering that they now have a monetary incentive to do so.

Overall, in order to properly protect our environment, the DEP needs to start fighting fire with fire. Or, as it often goes in the energy business, money with money.