Wildcatting in Charles County?

January 26, 1992

Fears of an oil rush in Charles County are probably overstated. First, even the worried environmentalists say that Texaco, which built what they call "the Cadillac" of drilling sites nearby in Virginia, is being ultra-careful in its explorations. Second, Texaco seems to be finding gas, not oil.

What troubled the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was the possibility that, after an actual oil strike, the company could say to natural resources regulators, "we've already got a permit to drill, what's the big deal?" The resulting boom, propelled by the fever that follows oil, would then guarantee rapid, environmentally dangerous development.

The foundation, fearing heightened movements of tankers, oil lighters and barges and the larger danger of spills, has asked state authorities to reconsider Texaco's permit.

That's understandable. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is an organization of professional worriers. 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 drilling crews, support operations and boom-town speculators is enough to cause concern. But it is worth remembering that Texaco's stated intention, even if it found oil, is to use a pipeline or tanker trucks to send the crude to its refineries. Thus, the danger of spills in the bay would be obviated.

That doesn't eliminate all hazards, but it should quiet fears of an Exxon Valdez disaster. If commercial gas is indeed found, construction crews will still bulldoze land, requiring serious environmental scrutiny over projected pipeline routes and methods of construction.

Our worsening dependence on foreign energy cannot be solved by rapacious exploitation of the land and sea. Surely it should not involve wholesale destruction of sensitive wetlands or other 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 regulators have required strong safeguards for the exploratory drilling, and Texaco, acknowledging that this project is "controversial," says these safeguards will stay in place. The Department of Natural Resources must be dead sure that promise is kept. A big natural gas find beneath Maryland and Virginia, provided there is safe disposal of potentially toxic bore-hole wastes, care in building wells and access roads and limited use of support facilities, could bring important benefits. But the potential hazards have to be minimized. State officials and Texaco should be held accountable to see that this happens.

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