One question continues to overshadow the greatest man-made environmental disaster still unfolding in the Gulf: Why weren't the people at BP, and even our federal regulating agency, better prepared?

With all the pressures below the earth's crust, wouldn't it make sense to have a "what if" or a worst-case scenario as your top priority before even taking on a deep drilling operation?

The spewing oil from this massive man-made disaster has already devastated the fish and wildlife population in the Gulf region.

The beautiful beaches and habitat have been ruined for generations, if not forever. And the toll on families in the region is also staggering, and depressing. Families who have been dependent on the fishing industry for generations have been swallowed up in this tragedy – the ugly globs of oil polluting their fishing grounds.

With that kind of backdrop, it's no wonder that when a gas well flare-up in our state late last week, it caused temperatures to rise about the gas drilling push in Pennsylvania.

Fortunately, it took crews a little more than half a day to tame the well in Clearfield County but that didn't stop concerns to magnify after the blow-out of the gas well.

The sight of the explosive gas and polluted water spewing as high as 75 feet into the air gave state officials a chill after what we've seen in the Gulf drilling disaster. Although the gas in the Clearfield County well never caught fire, and no injuries were reported, officials were still concerned about a possible explosion.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger said in a statement that the event at the Clearfield well site could have been a catastrophic incident that endangered life and property.

"This was not a minor accident but a serious incident that will be fully investigated by this agency with the appropriate and necessary actions taken quickly," he said.

President Barack Obama sees the exploration of shale as a major new source of clean, homegrown energy, and the state has become a key player in that strategy. State lawmakers, however, have cautioned that such drilling requires more stringent oversight to protect the environment, including our clean drinking water.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey said in a statement that these kinds of blowouts are a reminder of the dangers present and that precautions must be taken to protect the health and well-being of Pennsylvanians.

The senator has sponsored a bill to require the industry to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Under it, industry must disclose the chemicals being used in the hydraulic fracturing processes, which calls for millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals to be blasted underground.

This action shatters the tightly-compacted shale and releases trapped natural gas.

One thing that we can learn from the Clearfield near-disaster is that with this major push to tap into the state's gas-rich shale formation, regulators better make sure all the bases are covered to insure the workers' safety, and protecting the environment. There are pressures under our feet which require study by geologists, scientists and regulators.

This country can't handle another BP disaster.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com