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Our opinion: Right partnership on wells?

We do not trust foxes to guard henhouses.

That makes sense. Foxes have a vested interest in chicken coops being as unsecured as possible. A few missing birds may occur under the best circumstances, but if the foxes are in charge, who protects the chickens from the guards?

Is Pennsylvania entering into that kind of deal with gas well data?

Gov. Josh Shapiro has announced a collaboration with a natural gas producer to collect in-depth information about emissions and water quality and improve transparency on chemicals used in drilling processes.

“Pennsylvanians want us to do everything we can to help keep them and their families safe,” Shapiro said.

The agreement between the state and CNX Resources of Canonsburg is voluntary. The company will report its air quality on a website. It will also report what chemicals it is using in drilling – something many companies have been reluctant to do for years as they consider the blends proprietary.

These are good steps. So is moving the buffers around drilling sites from 500 or 600 feet to 2,500 feet around things like schools and hospitals. It’s also good that CNX president and CEO Nick Deiuliis says he is committed to “radical transparency.” Nice to hear because a lot of Pennsylvanians are concerned about these issues.

But the word voluntary is a two-edged sword. It says that the driller is stepping forward by choice – but leaves open the door to questions about how that participation and transparency is maintained.

CNX has a history with penalties. In 2017, there were fines topping $400,000 for violations in 2015 and 2016. In 2020, there was a $175,000 fine for a 2019 well failure.

It is up to Shapiro to make the arrangement one that keeps security of the proverbial henhouse in the state’s hands. He has the background to understand that. He was attorney general when a grand jury pointed out flaws in Pennsylvania’s regulation of the drilling industry and made recommendations, which remain unimplemented.

The governor said he would increase state regulators’ role through executive direction as legislators have not taken action. Critics were unimpressed with Shapiro’s steps and the involvement of CNX. Not to be outdone, the natural gas industry likewise bristled at the suggestion of additional legal or regulatory demands.

In the end, the move makes the question of safety surrounding Pennsylvanian gas wells a question of what is better – letting the fox guard the henhouse or no guard at all?

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