Thanks to a bill passed this June by the state legislature, Pennsylvania now has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the nation to abandon oil and gas regulations after they’ve been fully developed and publicly reviewed. While other states have modernized oil and gas oversight in the wake of the shale boom, no other state has exempted a major part of the oil and gas industry in the process.
This comes in the form of very bad bills that would derail much needed upgrades to oil and gas regulations, allow large industries to opt out of energy efficiency requirements, and delay air emission reductions. Legislators even want to give themselves more power to block health, safety, and environmental regulations.
Late last week, John Quigley, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, abruptly resigned. News reports pointed to a controversial email in which Mr. Quigley angrily demanded that environmental groups more boldly defend proposed oil and gas regulations.
It didn’t take long for some legislators to accuse Mr. Quigley of governmental impropriety. In the meantime, the email controversy continues to generate media stories.
Oil and gas field residents ask important questions, such as “Are the wells and facilities polluting the air?” and "Is that why I’m sick?” Unfortunately, industry representatives and some elected officials often give dismissive answers, like “Natural gas is clean” and “There’s only anecdotal evidence of health problems.”
Well, hundreds of peer-reviewed studies and much community air testing later, it’s getting harder to hide an essential fact: oil and gas development causes air (and water) pollution and harms health. Increasingly, there’s also visual evidence, thanks to infrared cameras that make pollution invisible to the naked eye, visible to the world.
Oil and gas companies often complain about “overly burdensome” and “redundant” regulations that reduce efficiency and increase costs. In Pennsylvania, drillers are going one big step further—making it clear that they really don’t want to be regulated at all.
Some state legislators are working to derail the adoption of revised regulations for well sites. They’ve tried (though so so far failed) to prohibit rules for conventional drillers by amending the fiscal code. Now they’re pushing for the House and Senate to pass concurrent resolutions disapproving of the regulations, thereby stalling the adoption of Chapter 78, and potentially also of revised rules for unconventional (Marcellus Shale) drilling, known as Chapter 78a. This latest move could come as early as April 12, when the House and Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committees meet.
Every day, an average adult takes about 20,000 breaths to get the oxygen needed for survival. Unfortunately, for the growing number of people living near oil and gas development, that many breaths also provides ample opportunities to take in health-harming pollution.
The shale boom of the last several years has intensified drilling in many places and introduced it in others, adding onto previous drilling and bringing the number of active oil and gas wells nationwide to 1.1 million in 2014.
No wonder oil and gas field residents keep asking basic questions: “What’s in my air?” and "Why is it making me sick?” Yet both the regulators who oversee the oil and gas industry and the policymakers who determine its course respond only with partial, ambiguous answers. They don’t regularly monitor the air directly around well sites and facilities, accurately track the emissions generated, or use the right health standards to judge risks to residents.
Pennsylvania officials often boast about having the second highest natural gas producing state in the nation, usually while playing up purported economic benefits and downplaying documented environmental impacts. But this week, the ranking was invoked as the reason to stem pollution caused by oil and gas operations.
Governor Wolf's Administration announced a new plan to o reduce methane pollution from fracking and fracking-related development, including gas wells and processing and transmission facilities. At 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period, methane—the primary component of natural gas—is a major driver of climate change. In 2014, Pennsylvania’s oil and gas producers reported wasting nearly 100,000 metric tons of methane, or enough natural gas to heat nearly 65,000 homes.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly is being downright subversive. Not in the sense of resisting injustice or speaking truth to power, but by subverting the democratic process.
Late last week, the Senate voted 48-2 to pass the latest version of the fiscal code, the bill that implements the state budget. The House could vote to pass the same bill this week. Legislators have packed the fiscal code with provisions that would never survive as stand-alone bills, avoiding debate and public scrutiny. While the tactic isn’t new, it’s a blatant example of “backdoor” governance and an attempt to usurp the authority of government agencies. It may even be unconstitutional.