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Pennsylvania Lawmakers Move to Stop New Oil/Gas Drilling Regs

The Pennsylvania House Environmental and Energy Resources Committee has approved a resolution to prevent a package of environmental regulations for the oil and natural gas industry from being implemented.

The committee voted along party lines 19-8 on Tuesday to approve the resolution, which claims the regulations violate state law and ignore a 2013 state Supreme Court ruling that struck down parts of a law about which the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) based some of its proposals (see Shale DailyDec. 20, 2013). Three Democrats from the southwestern part of the state, where unconventional oil and gas development is heavy, joined Republicans in approving the resolution.

More than four years in the making, the new rules include separate standards for the conventional and unconventional industries. They would, among other things, reduce impacts on public resources, such as schools and parks, help prevent spills, strengthen waste management and require stronger well site restoration standards (see Shale DailyJan. 6)

But the proposed rulemaking has met opposition at nearly every step of the way. Conventional producers and the trade organizations that represent them have accused DEP of writing ambiguous regulations for both segments of the industry (see Shale DailyApril 18). They have also claimed that the DEP ignored Act 126 of 2014, which required the agency to adopt separate regulations for the conventional and unconventional industries.

"These one-size-fits-all drilling regulations are nothing short of a death sentence for many of the independent oil and natural gas producers who have been safely operating in our region for more than 150 years and thousands of family-sustaining jobs," said Republican Rep. Kathy Rapp of Northwest Pennsylvania, where conventional drillers have traditionally operated. "Time and time again, the out-of-touch Harrisburg bureaucrats who have written and rammed these overreaching regulations through the process have demonstrated a severe lack of understanding when it comes to forcing smaller, conventional operators to follow the same regulations as unconventional operators, such as the Marcellus Shale industry."

The DEP sent the package to the state’s Environmental Quality Board, which gave its approval, and last month the Independent Regulatory Review Commission also approved them (see Shale DailyApril 22). The DEP maintains that the rulemaking process was a balanced and transparent one, with several public hearings and tens of thousands of public comments submitted.

The general assembly now has 30 days -- or 10 legislative days -- to adopt the resolution or it will pass both chambers and head to the state Attorney General's office before being implemented. If lawmakers vote to approve the resolution and block the rules, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf may veto the resolution. His administration, however, has not said that he would do so.

"Gov. Wolf believes the natural gas industry is an important part of the commonwealth's economy and we must support its growth by focusing on the development of important infrastructure like pipelines," said spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan. "The governor also believes the new oil and gas regulations are important to protecting the health of our environment and residents. The regulations have been under development for five years, through three separate administrations and have benefited from an unprecedented process of engagement and public participation."

Sheridan added that Wolf is prepared to work with the legislature "to further his administration's goal of improving the protection of water and public resources."

Rapp, like other lawmakers on the House energy committee, questioned the rulemaking process calling it "heavily flawed" and saying the regulations are "punitive."

While there are separate regulations in the package, both conventional and unconventional producers would be required to adhere to some of the same rules, such as closer regulatory scrutiny for wells near public resource protection zones. All operators would be required to conduct reviews of abandon and active wells near their pads prior to drilling, among other things.  

The House is scheduled for votes on May 16, while the Senate returns to session on Monday (May 9).

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