Regulatory temper tantrum in PA

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 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 (ERE) Committees meet.  

After years of allowing oil and gas operations with outdated regulations, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is finally poised to change the status quo. This comes after nearly three years of revisions, several public hearings statewide, and the submission of nearly 30,000 comments from the public, industry, environmental organizations, and elected officials. The industry and legislators may not like the final result, but they had more than enough time and opportunity to weigh in. 

Although Earthworks and its partners will continue to push for even stronger regulations to protect communities and the environment, the current revisions are a huge step forward. Among other things, Chapter 78 and 78a rules would prohibit the storage of polluting waste in open pits, trigger additional review of permits to drill near schools and playgrounds, require operators to identify old wells before drilling new ones, and require immediate notification of spills and releases of harmful substances. 

In a last-ditch show of frustration, the Pennsylvania Independent Petroleum Producers Association (PIPP) has filed a lawsuit challenging Chapter 78 on the grounds that they are unfairly stringent and expensive to implement. This after the legislature in 2014 forced DEP to create a different set of rules just for conventional drillers. DEP even set up a special Conventional Oil and Gas Advisory Committee—made up largely of industry representatives—to review them. 

PIPP’s lawsuit seeks an injunction on the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, which is currently accepting comments on Chapter 78/78a and meeting April 21 to vote on the rules. An affirmative vote by IRRC is a critical administrative step toward adoption into law by this summer. 

Both PIPP and legislative obstructionists insist that conventional drilling is benign for the environment. This is magical thinking: 

  • All types of oil and gas wells are developed with toxic chemicals and large volumes of water, disturb land, and generate polluting waste. Today, most conventional operations rely on hydraulic fracturing (fracking). 
  • Over 7800 new conventional wells were drilled between 2009-2014. 
  • Conventional operations result in spills, accidents, and pollution. In 2014, they were the focus of about half of all DEP inspections but over three-quarters of violations issued.
  • Between 2008-2014, over 60% of the investigations conducted by DEP on the migration of methane into drinking water supplies involved conventional gas wells.
  • Conventional operators are largely responsible for the estimated 200,000 abandoned oil and gas wells statewide, all of which are potential sources of water and air pollution.

The oil and gas industry may not like being told to change some of its practices. But by blocking regulatory progress, operators and legislators are selfishly forcing the public to continue to bear the high environmental and health costs of drilling with impunity.

UPDATE 4/12: The Senate ERE Committee passed SB1011, which can now be voted on in the full Senate. The sponsor said that regulations from 1984 are enough to address modern-day conventional drilling, and members of the Committee bought it. The House ERE Committee voted to reject the regulations. Both the House and Senate ERE Committees are demanding that IRRC vote down the regulations next week

UPDATE 4/15: The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court struck down PIPP's lawsuit against the conventional drilling regulations, stating that the claims of harm were premature, since Chapter 78 isn't yet finalized or being implemented.