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How Pennsylvania Residents are Left in the Dark on Health and Enforcement

Other parts of Blackout in the Gas Patch:

From the introduction:

Across the United States, gas and oil field communities  seek help from public agencies when they are negatively impacted by development. Industry regulators hold primary responsibility for supporting citizens, preventing harm, and ensuring accountability by companies for the damage they cause.

Upholding these responsibilities requires frequent inspections and investigations, issuing violations, acting to prevent and mitigate damage, direct assistance to citizens, and overall transparency. To be able to do all these things, regulatory agencies need sufficient funds, staff, and coordination. Most importantly, they need political leaders who are committed to protecting public health and the environment—even in the face of calls for rapid energy production and protection of industry interests.

In recent years, the Marcellus Shale drilling boom has pushed Pennsylvania into the number three spot among natural gas producing states in terms of volume, and all the way to number one for rate of growth in production. From 2008 to the present (June 2014), the state issued permits for nearly 16,000 unconventional gas and oil wells, about 7,600 of which have been drilled; the pace of development has been rapid, with almost 40 percent of this drilling occurring in just the last two years.

Yet the level of resources available to implement the state’s oil and gas regulatory program and oversee extraction and production has been moving in the opposite direction. Budget cuts to Pennsylvania’s regulatory agency, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), have been steady and steep; by 2011, the agency had nearly 40 percent less money to work with than in 2009 and 60 percent less than in 2001. Over the last decade, DEP has lost 20 percent of its permanent positions.

In 2012, Governor Corbett issued an Executive Order requiring DEP to establish timeframes within which permit applications must be reviewed. Known as the Permit Decision Guarantee, the order aims to ensure that permits are processed “as expeditiously as possible” and makes “compliance with the review deadlines a factor in any job performance evaluations.” Under the policy, a basic drill and operate well permit must be issued in no more than 32 days and a general stormwater control permit can be expedited in as little 14 days. DEP emphasizes that since late 2012, 94% of permit decisions were made within the target timeframes, and that the agency had reduced the number of most types of “permits in the queue” by 99%.

A focus on speedy reviews of permit applications clearly supports expansion of the industry. But it also reflects the governor’s willingness to allow potential environmental considerations to be overlooked during permitting. In addition, decreased resources have meant that DEP must “do more with less,” possibly compromising oversight activities such as inspections and investigations—a schedule of which has not been mandated by the Governor or DEP. This brings into question the agency’s ability to implement its oil and gas regulatory program, protect the public, and provide information and assistance—particularly at a time when more and more people need it.

As shown in the following pages, Pennsylvania’s oversight of the gas and oil industry is falling far short of the demands posed by surging development. The table below summarizes the 25 key findings from our research; the information and analysis behind each one is discussed throughout the report.

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