In a letter sent last week to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe accused the agency of skirting the state's Regulatory Review Act in opening a new general permit for unconventional well sites and general permit revisions for natural gas compressor facilities to public comment.
Metcalfe serves as chairman of the State Government Committee, which evaluates the administration of laws and oversees the review act. Metcalfe said in the letter to Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell that "instead of following the statutorily prescribed protocol for regulatory promulgation," the agency has made a "unilateral decision" that the permits should not be subject to closer regulatory review. That process would include multiple public comment periods and the state's Independent Regulatory Review Commission, Metcalfe said.
"I believe that the formation of methane limits -- absent a federal standard or statutory authority to establish them -- as well as required control devices and extensive new reporting requirements, among other provisions, deviate significantly from minor permit revisions and constitute significant changes that are the equivalent of regulatory action." He called the DEP's moves a "blatant disregard for the law."
The new general permit for unconventional well sites (GP-5A) and revisions for the general permit for natural gas compressor stations (GP-5) are part of Gov. Tom Wolf's plans to reduce oil and gas industry emissions. The proposals would also affect remote pigging stations, transmission stations and processing plants.
DEP said they establish best available technology for leak detection and repair, recordkeeping and reporting requirements, among other things. The new permit for unconventional well sites would replace the Category No. 38 conditional permit exemption for oil and gas exploration, which changed DEP's air permitting policy and allowed regulators to more narrowly identify sources or categories of sources that could be exempt from plan approval.
But since Wolf announced the initiative last year, the industry has been concerned about how the changes could exceed the scope of similar federal rulemaking efforts undertaken during President Obama's tenure. For example, the state would require natural gas operators to inspect the installation of well pads within 30 days and quarterly after wells are put into production. While some of the Obama administration's regulatory efforts are now in the crosshairs of President Trump's administration, inspections would be required more frequently than federal standards.
Metcalfe's letter is one of the first glimmers of opposition to Wolf's plans and the agency's permitting proposals, which it first unveiled late last year. The industry is already clashing with the agency over a broader regulatory overhaul for shale drillers it tried to implement last year. Some of those new rules are being challenged in state court.
"Again the Wolf administration has overstepped its authority by attempting to jam through new, unnecessary, and costly requirements that will harm Pennsylvania job creators," said Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Spigelmyer in response to Metcalfe's concerns. "This latest layer of bureaucratic red tape specifically targets the natural gas industry, which continues to struggle under global market challenges."
In avoiding the Regulatory Review Act, Metcalfe said the agency has failed to demonstrate why the permitting changes are necessary, provide a cost-benefit analysis and describe the data upon which the regulations are based.
DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the changes being made are "consistent with the law." He added that "DEP is at the beginning of this process, not the end, and will continue to work with stakeholders, citizens, industry and the legislature on these permits. The current drafts of these general permits will enable a streamlined permit process for new sources."
The public comment period opened on Feb. 4 and closes on March 22. The proposals can be found on the agency'swebsite.