About that rush to drill. . .

January 22, 1992

Could Texaco's search for oil in Charles County result in an Exxon Valdez accident in the Chesapeake Bay? Probably not. Texaco, which built what even environmentalists call "the Cadillac" of drilling sites in nearby Virginia, thinks gas is a more likely find than oil.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, fearing an oil strike and a resulting boom propelled by the fever that follows oil, doesn't believe it. The foundation, whose recent report card found the bay ecosystem barely holding its own, has asked the Department of Natural Resources to reconsider its grant of exploratory drilling rights to Texaco. The danger of a major spill, from well blowouts, pipeline breaks or tanker mishaps must be reassessed, the foundation says.

That's understandable. Organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are in business to be professional worriers. And in truth, the health of the bay would be much better today had there been such a public-spirited watchdog on the job from the beginning. The specter of an oil spill or the potential damage caused by major-league drilling crews and associated support operations is enough to cause concern. But it is worth noting that Texaco's stated intention even if it found oil would have been to send the crude by pipeline to its refinery on the Delaware. Thus, the increased water traffic some feared would not be necessary.

That doesn't get us out of the woods by itself, but it does lessen the danger of spills. If commercial gas is indeed found, construction crews will still bulldoze acreage, requiring serious environmental scrutiny over projected pipeline routes and methods of construction. Wildlife habitat can be destroyed by industrial development just as well as by residential sprawl, highway construction or other burdens imposed by human activity.

Our worsening dependence on foreign energy cannot be solved by over-rapid development of every American hydrocarbon source available; it should not involve wholesale destruction of sensitive wetlands or other Chesapeake Bay resources. Those resources feed people all over the world, and the sport fishing and recreation industries operating in and around the bay have defined Maryland lifestyles for generations.

State environmental regulators have clearly demanded strong safeguards for the exploratory drilling, and Texaco says it would keep them in place while developing a field even its representatives call "controversial." The Department of Natural Resources must be dead sure that promise is kept. The discovery of a big natural gas field underneath Maryland and Virginia, with appropriate safeguards for disposal of potentially toxic bore-hole wastes and for well and access-road construction, siting and use of support facilities, could bring important benefits. Making sure the hazards are minimized is the other part of the bargain.

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