Ancient history ... modern lessons
Despite a long history of hosting environmentally disruptive energy extraction industries, including the nation's first oil well, Pennsylvania's government was woefully unprepared for the large-scale arrival of the natural gas industry.
Antiquated laws that were barely adequate in their day, combined with politicians' embrace of a promising enterprise and a politically aggressive, politically savvy industry, sent large-scale deep drilling and fracking off to the races before the state government was willing or prepared to do its duty.
This week Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a withering audit of the state government's regulatory performance from 2009 through 2012 and concluded that the state, which allowed drilling before an appropriate regulatory regime was in place, has failed to catch up.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is "underfunded, understaffed and inconsistent in how it approaches shale gas development," Mr. DePasquale said.
According to the Corbett administration, a principal proponent of the industry, the audit reflects ancient history, even though it covered a period through 2012. And, while disputing all eight of the auditor general's major findings, the department agreed to all of his 24 recommendations.
The audit goes into detail about DEP's failure to resolve complaints within statutory deadlines, convoluted record-keeping and other transparency issues.
Legislative critics of the administration's stewardship pointed out that the general fund's annual contributions to the DEP have declined by more than $100 million since 2009, at the same time that the administration refuses to entertain a tax on gas production that could bolster the agency's performance.
At some point the state government must stop playing catch-up and get ahead of the game. Several drilling companies, to their credit, along with academic scientists and environmentalists, have cooperated to devise "best practices" for the extraction industry.
Legislators should mandate those best practices as the regulatory regime, and then fund the DEP to ensure that compliance is not merely voluntary.