Inquirer Editorial: The industry won't do itself any favors with its gloves-off approach to protesters.

Posted: September 10, 2011

Maybe if Pennsylvania natural-gas drillers hadn't tallied hundreds of serious environmental violations during the still-nascent Marcellus Shale boom, the ranks of protesters who swarmed an industry conference in Philadelphia this week would have been a little thinner.

But it's those violations, incurred when extracting natural gas by pumping a witch's brew of chemicals underground, that have given so many people understandable pause over the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The protest Wednesday outside the Convention Center was the first time those problems were on center stage in this region, which does not have a shale formation. But it may not be the last.

Natural-gas advocates are pushing for approval of drilling in the Delaware River watershed. It is temporarily protected with a ban imposed by the Delaware River Basin Commission, which oversees the rivers and streams supplying drinking water to 15 million people.

That drilling push raises the stakes substantially for public health and the environment, so it's good to hear that the basin commission is taking more time to review the reams of public comment it has gathered.

Even though the regulations are set to be aired at a hearing in late October, the commission still should move ahead without conducting an environmental impact study. That's essential to answer important questions about fracking, so policymakers can properly judge whether the risks to the region's drinking water simply outweigh the benefits.

As this process unfolds, the industry really won't do itself any favors by repeating its gloves-off response to protesters. One driller's over-the-top characterization of fracking opponents as extremists who want to plunge the nation into a new Dark Ages, in effect, was making light of what appear to be deep-rooted concerns over something as fundamental as making sure millions of people can drink clean water.

Despite claims that the industry will be a boon to the state's economy, drillers' ability so far to skate away from the type of severance tax on gas extraction common in every other major drilling venue hasn't helped its cause with citizens, either.

For one thing, they see local communities struggling to cleanse the polluted wastewater that comes from fracking. They also see state spending slashed for universities and public schools, and vast infrastructure needs go unmet.

So a no-fracking-tax policy that keeps Gov. Corbett and many Republican state lawmakers in good graces with tea-party forces makes absolutely no sense to the majority of Pennsylvanians.

Citizens' chief concern, though, should remain whether fracking leaves the water safe to drink and the air healthy to breathe. That's the legacy of too many environmental missteps by the state's fledgling natural-gas industry, and it's likely to keep fueling the protests of fracking opponents for some time.

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