It was an offhand comment at a political panel during the Democratic National Convention that gave some fracking opponents a good sound bite from the man who first welcomed the shale gas industry into Pennsylvania. Some even claimed it was an apology.
“I made a mistake,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell. “In the rush to get the economic part of fracking delivered for Pennsylvania, we didn’t regulate well construction and [disposal] of frackwater as well as we should.”
“We cured that in 2010 and we haven’t had a significant incident since,” he added.
Too little, too late, blasted tweets and comments on a story that first reported Mr. Rendell’s statements.
Clarifying his statement last week, Mr. Rendell said this was not a mea-culpa.
“I don’t apologize at all,” he said. “I’m a strong advocate of continuing to frack.”
Mr. Rendell, who was governor from 2003 through 2011, oversaw the birth of the Marcellus Shale industry in Pennsylvania as well as its first blunders, such as spills, explosions and drinking water fouled by gas activities.
Last week, Mr. Rendell blamed the accidents on unscrupulous operators.
“Natural gas fracking was a gold mine at that time,” he said. “The rush to get the liquid gold out of the ground caused companies to essentially get cowboy drillers from the South, from Texas, who came in and drilled with very little concern” about environmental impacts.
“That’s where most of the methane that got into the groundwater came from,” he said.
The most visible case of this was in Dimock, Pa., where the state Department of Environmental Protection found that Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.’s operations impacted water supplies for a number of homes near its wells.
“We should have anticipated that in this rush, there would have been some haphazard or slapdash [operators],” Mr. Rendell said.
At the same time, Mr. Rendell said his administration checked with states that already had fracking and didn’t find any red flags.
Mr. Rendell also claimed that all major problems were eliminated in 2010.
When asked about leaks, explosions, and accidents that occurred since then, Mr. Rendell said there have been “not many compared to the beginning.”
“Anything you do you’re going have some problems,” he said.
A political move?
By the time Mr. Rendell said the fixes to regulations had been made, shale gas operators had drilled nearly 3,000 unconventional wells, more than a quarter of all such wells drilled to date, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
“The governor is charming because he tends to take blame on his big shoulders,” said John Hanger, who served as the secretary of the DEP from 2008 through 2011 and later as a policy director for current Gov. Tom Wolf.
“I would say that the regulatory apparatus wasn’t where it needed to be,” Mr. Hanger conceded, “but the legislature would have had to pass a new oil and gas act that would have basically suspended drilling or the granting of new permits” for all problems to have been resolved before activity ramped up.
There was no will for such a move, he said. And even if there had been, “That would have been a loss.”
“It would have come with trade-offs — indeed, even environmental trade-offs.”
“He’s very good at the big picture,” Mr. Hanger said about Mr. Rendell. But, “He’s clearly forgotten major things that were done.”
In addition to the two regulations proposed in 2009 and approved by 2011 that Mr. Rendell credits with eliminating problems -— strengthening rules for how companies encase and cement their wells and limiting discharges of industrial fluids with high total dissolved solids — his administration twice authorized major hiring of DEP inspectors, Mr. Hanger said.
It also ordered some companies to halt drilling after environmental incidents, raised permit fees, increased set backs for industrial activities, and required companies to disclose their frack chemicals.
Mr. Hanger said he thinks Mr. Rendell, a one-time chair of the Democratic National Convention and one of the party’s more visible advisers, was throwing a bone to Democrats who are cautious about fracking or, at least, bristle at Republicans’ whole-hearted embrace of it.
“I think for any Democrat it’s very difficult to stand with this industry at this point,” said Mr. Hanger, who sought the party’s nomination for governor during the last gubernatorial election.
Yet he, too, believes that shale development has been good for the country because it helped to push dirtier-burning coal power plants to the sidelines, decreased emissions and lowered the price of energy for consumers.
Permits for shale gas wells started gaining momentum in 2005 and 2006, but it wasn’t until 2008 that shale exploitation began in earnest, said Rob Alternburg, a former executive policy specialist at the DEP. He retired from the agency in 2014 and heads the energy center of environmental advocacy group PennFuture.
“I can’t say that anybody at that time said [to] prioritize gas development although there was certainly the sense at that time that gas was a cleaner alternative than coal,” he said.
There was no political will and no serious discussions about pausing drilling while regulations caught up, Mr. Altenburg said, and the DEP did not have authority to deny permits if they qualified under the laws of the time.
Mr. Rendell has been a critic of the argument for a moratorium. In 2013, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News urging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to lift the state’s ban on fracking.
“If we choose to embrace natural gas, it will help us get past a number of significant economic and environmental challenges,” Mr. Rendell wrote. “On the other hand, if we let fear carry the day, we will squander another key moment to move forward together.”
New York’s moratorium is intact.
Last week, Mr. Rendell said he’s told Mr. Cuomo that if the New York governor does change course, he should make sure to enact the two regulations that Mr. Rendell said solved Pennsylvania’s problems — better well construction standards and rules to deal with flowback water.
If Mr. Rendell had known what he knows now, he said he would have put a moratorium on new drilling in the state forest earlier than October 2010 and he would have moved faster to enact the regulations he credits with stopping problems. Instead of starting them in 2009, he would have moved in 2008, Mr. Rendell said.
Anya Litvak: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1455.