Do We Have Your Attention Now?

via WikiMedia Commons

via WikiMedia Commons

Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. – Samuel Johnson

Nobody ever said it would be easy. There’s lots of natural gas in the ground. We’ve been siphoning it up from the ground for years. But supplies dwindled as traditional fields yielded less and less gas. Fracking has brought a new production bonanza to states around the Union. Inevitably, protests have come hand in hand with increased production. This summer has been dubbed #FearlessSummer by environmentalists opposed to the extraction and carbon energy industries.

Fracking is dirty work. It can pollute ground water, endangering wells and agricultural water, and it produces a tremendous amount of waste. The byproduct of fracking is a wicked stew of proprietary chemicals and water used to force natural gas out of its ancient hiding places underground.

One of the sources of particular ire in the environmental circles is the seeming impunity with which energy companies have been able to pursue natural gas over hill and under dale. The companies rely on eminent domain to site their drilling rigs, and have been largely shielded from liability for environmental damage they have caused while feeding the country’s unquenchable demand for energy.

XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil settled with the Environmental Protection Agency over a 50 thousand gallon spill of fracking slurry at one of its storage tanks in Pennsylvania. Without admitting liability, it agreed to pay a $100,000 fine and implement a more rigorous waste water management regime. It also hauled away some 3,000 tons of contaminated soil.

All well and good as far as the Feds and XTO were concerned. Environmentalists,  not so much. Also not so pleased – the Pennsylvania state Attorney General. Last Tuesday, Attorney General Kathleen Kane filed criminal charges against XTO over the 2010 spill. Not civil. Criminal. That’s a first. No other Marcellus Shale production company has ever faced criminal charges.

Environmentalists are giddy over the prosecution, comparing it to the genteel supervision the company has received from state regulators. Energy industry representatives went ballistic, as well they might, accusing Kane of doing some polluting of her own – of the business environment – and sending a “chilling message” to the energy business.

But Kane’s office insists it wasn’t going off half-cocked. “The prosecutorial powers of this office are used carefully and with great consideration,” First Deputy Attorney General Adrian R. King Jr. said through a spokeswoman. “We closely examine the facts and the applicable law in each case and proceed accordingly.” And Kane’s office didn’t arrive at the charges by itself. It was a grand jury that handed down the charges.

Settlements like the one XTO reached with federal regulators are just a cost of doing business for an enormous company like ExxonMobil. Criminal charges, on the other hand, take the risk/benefit calculation to a whole new level. The Pennsylvania charges have ignited a furor and are sure to be fought by an industry red in tooth and claw. But as the good doctor observed to his friend Boswell, the gallows sharpens the mind. The prospect of standing in the dock is likely to do the same for the captains of the energy industry.

 

 

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