The League of Women Voters of Arkansas committed to study gas drilling in the Fayetteville Shale Play in order to have an informed understanding of Arkansas's transforming phenomenon. In honoring the league's longstanding tradition of looking at all sides of an issue, the LWVAR study included environmental reports showing serious issues that were receiving little media attention. While a potential economic boon creates enthusiasm, long-term impacts have to be factored into the ultimate value of any activity.
Arkansas is fortunate to have an experienced sister state to turn to for information. Texas' development of the larger Barnett Shale Play is about two years ahead of activity here. Where many federal laws have been relaxed to benefit gas drilling, states have had to move quickly to legislate protection for their air and water. Companies resist severance taxes and management practices they see as costly, but rapidly escalating energy values reward their efforts far beyond original projections and break-even points.
For sudden wealth to appear at a time when many other states are in economic decline is certainly Arkansas's good fortune. But what are the hidden costs to water, infrastructure, long-term public health and economic sustainability? The state does not have an adequate system in place to monitor and regulate the current pace of operations. Voices of caution are made out to be anti-progressive or environmentally radical. While companies benefit from accelerating activity, slowing down the process is needed to allow corrective measures to be taken to minimize negative impacts.
After a full year's study, the LWVAR arrived at these consensus positions regarding the Fayetteville Shale Play:
1. Establish a single state water authority to coordinate use and regulation.
2. Provide greater funding for regulatory oversight that is not merely complaint driven.
3. Provide greater protection of landowners' surface rights and riparian areas.
4. Provide full disclosure of chemical additives used that are capable of infiltrating groundwater or producing air pollution.
5. Restructure the severance tax so that it is based on market value rather than volume produced and set at a rate comparable to the region. (Achieved April 2008.)
6. Establish a fund to cover infrastructure changes and damage in areas which are impacted by gas drilling.
There is much to be done to improve our regulations and drilling practices. Repairs are always more expensive than preventing damage in the first place. Arkansas has a lot to gain and a lot to lose.
Mary Alice Serafini of Fayetteville is president of the League of Women Voters of Arkansas.