Natural gas drillingNatural gas drilling operations in Dimock, Pa.(Helen Slottje, via Flickr)Via ProPublica:

Agriculture officials have quarantined 28 beef cattle on a Pennsylvania farm after wastewater from a nearby gas well leaked into a field and came in contact with the animals.

The state Department of Agriculture said the action was its first livestock quarantine related to pollution from natural gas drilling. Although the quarantine was ordered in May, it was announced Thursday.

A mere taste of what’s to come from natural-gas fracking in the Marcellus Shale, folks.

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With fracking, or hydraulic fracturing of rock formations to extract natural gas, we’re setting ourselves up for an environmental disaster of epic proportions — and much of it the result of an inability to develop rural economies. Residents in upstate New York and central Pennsylvania are desperate for income, and the gas companies are happy to write checks for mineral rights. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania and New York are in the middle of state budget crises. The prospect of tax revenue from fracking is apparently more than enough to offset environmental concerns.

In fairness, both states are paying attention to the risks of water contamination, but they may both conclude that a little water contamination is a small price to pay for a balanced budget and increased rural incomes (at least for leaseholders). Pennsylvania is already experiencing pushback from gas companies who say the state’s drilling regulations for drinking water protection in Marcellus Shale regions are unreasonably high. Complicating matters further is that both the New York City and Delaware Valley watersheds are likely to gain special protections, which leaves areas outside those regions more vulnerable to lenient standards. Ya gotta drill somewhere!

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Nightmare scenarios abound. As High Country News summarizes, fracking has brought the West “polluted wastewater problemslarge scale habitat disturbance, methane leaks from pipelines, and potentially serious health impacts that come along with the use of toxic chemicals in hydraulic fracturing.” And as this article on Civil Eats suggests, even heavily regulated fracking could be enough to destroy much of New York’s Hudson Valley farmland. After all, how many cattle quarantines or lost crops does it take to put a farmer out of business? Answer: not many.

Indeed, this latest episode, despite the fact that the cattle don’t yet seem to have been harmed, will give little comfort to those who have to listen to industry assurances of safety. Would you want to eat cows that have been dining in fields covered in benzene and diesel fuel?

My hope is that the tactics the energy industry have used to exploit natural resources to great success out West won’t work back East, where they are operating much closer to media and population centers. But betting on the strength of politicians’ spines to resist doing the bidding of the energy industry never made anyone any money …