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Pennsylvania Oil/Gas Drillers Facing Tighter Environmental Protection Standards

Oil and natural gas drillers in Pennsylvania would likely face more red tape under a comprehensive package of environmental regulations that top officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said Monday should be implemented by the Spring of 2016.

The DEP has been at work on the rulemaking proposal for about four years. But tens of thousands of public comments, legislation passed in recent years and a new administration with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf taking office in January have all delayed the process.

"Typically it takes about two years to complete regulation in Pennsylvania, but on this set of regulations, the public demanded a high level of participation and our rule at the DEP is to be thoughtful, deliberate and transparent throughout this process," said Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley. "We're committed to protecting our natural resources as we work in partnership with all stakeholders in service of responsible drilling. My definition of responsible drilling is protecting public health and the environment while enabling drilling to proceed."

The state's omnibus oil and gas law, Act 13, required DEP to update Chapter 78 of the state code, which sets out environmental protection standards. The rule changes deal with reducing impacts on public resources, preventing spills, waste management and restoring well sites after drilling, among other things. Quigley, who formerly served as the secretary of the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and as an adviser to the environmental advocacy group PennFuture, was appointed by Wolf in January, creating uncertainty about when the new regulations would be implemented (seeShale Daily, Jan. 14).

Quigley said during a conference call with news media on Monday that  the rulemaking process was back on track after the agency said last year that it would be delayed until sometime in 2016 (see Shale Daily, May 13, 2014). But he added that some of the new regulations would be tighter and geared toward addressing the concerns of operators, landowners and the general public.

Deputy Secretary for Oil and Gas Management Scott Perry said DEP is proposing to eliminate the use of temporary waste storage pits, which are primarily used by conventional drillers. The agency is also proposing that centralized wastewater impoundments, which hold millions of gallons of water and feed multiple drilling pads, either close within three years of the new rules' implementation date, or be upgraded and repermitted with a residual waste permit.

"These impoundments are only used by a small number of operators, but there have been compliance and pollution issues since inception of the permit," Perry said. "The pollution issues that occur due to these facilities can and have caused significant impacts to soil and water, including water supplies. Leaks and spills resulting in environmental harm have occurred as recently as last year."

A new section would be added to regulations for above-ground fluid storage facilities to give "an effective alternative that provides environmental protection," Perry said.

Perry said six Marcellus Shale drillers in the state are operating 17 centralized impoundments, while another 13 permits are pending. Under the new rules, the impoundments would have to be constructed similar to a landfill, with thicker liners and leak detection systems, among things.

Range Resources Corp. received one of the largest fines in state history last year for issues at six of the company's water impoundments in southwest Pennsylvania (see Shale Daily, Sept. 19, 2014). At the time, state regulators said they would consider aspects of Range's remediation plan in crafting the new waste management regulations.

Drilling near public resources such as schools, playgrounds and drinking water protection areas will now require additional consideration. Under the new regulations, operators would have to conduct a review of impacts to public resources and develop mitigation measures for the DEP and other state agencies to review under a period extended from 15 to 30 days. Impacts would be examined from the edge of the well pad and not the wellhead.

The draft regulations would also establish a new requirement for noise control and mitigation. It would require operators to prepare and implement a site-specific noise mitigation plan for drilling, stimulation and other development activities. Operators would also have to evaluate the effectiveness of those measures.

As originally proposed, the new regulations required only orphaned and abandoned wells to be identified prior to hydraulic fracturing. A new change has been proposed that would require operators to identify both active and inactive status wells, as well as orphaned and abandoned wells, with a stipulation that operators submit a report to the agency three days prior to the start of operations. 

Perry added that drilling within 100 feet of waterways in the state would result in "heightened" regulatory review. It remains unclear how much longer, if at all, it would take an operator to receive a permit for a typical shale well under some of the proposed changes.

Legislation passed last year requires regulators to draft separate rules for conventional and unconventional drillers. Both industries will also have their own technical advisory boards, which consult the DEP about oil and gas regulations (see Shale Daily, Feb. 23). The agency will release the updated draft as a notice of final regulation next month for more public comment.

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