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Pennsylvania DEP Aims For More Oil/Gas Oversight in Impoverished Communities

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is planning to revive its long dormant Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), a program aimed at better protecting low income areas from industrial development such as oil and gas drilling.

While the office was established more than a decade ago, the program was underutilized by former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's administration. But DEP Secretary John Quigley, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in January (seeShale Daily, Jan. 14), is expected to name a director this week even as state agencies have been limited by a nearly four month state budget impasse (see Shale Daily, Oct. 7).

The OEJ was established as a point of contact for Pennsylvania residents in low income areas and areas with a higher number of minorities. Its primary goal is to increase environmental awareness and involvement in the DEP permitting process. More than 800 communities in the state, including those in areas of heavy unconventional natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale, could be considered low-income, according to state data.

While a fraction of the state's nearly 9,500 unconventional wells are located in such communities, a revived OEJ would enhance the DEP's oil and gas well permit review process with early notification, more information and additional public participation measures for future permits in low income areas.

Quigley, who once served as a government relations manager for the environmental advocacy group PennFuture, told local news media that the program would be "rebuilt from the ground up." Unconventional permit applications for low income areas would be added to a list the agency uses to decide when further review is required.

State law limits the DEP in rejecting oil and gas permits, but the ultimate goal would be more awareness about the process for oil and gas permit applications in low-income areas, an agency spokesman said. Even if Quigley names a new director this week, it's unclear when the position would actually be filled and when the OEJ would expand its work with a state hiring freeze likely until a budget is passed. 

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