The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is requiring its inspectors to get all actions related to Marcellus Shale activities pre-approved by DEP Secretary Mike Krancer.

The new policy came to light Wednesday after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an internal e-mail from DEP Executive Deputy Secretary John Hines requiring actions to go through him and Dana Aunkst, acting DEP deputy secretary for field operations, before getting final approval from Krancer.

Those actions include issuing notices of violation (NOV) for running afoul of state regulations.

"Effective immediately, any actions, NOVs and such must get the approval of Dana and I with final clearance from Mike," Hines wrote. "Any waiver from this directive will not be acceptable."

The DEP described the action to NGI's Shale Daily as a three-month "pilot project" to identify and correct any inconsistencies in the way inspectors issue violations across the state.

"DEP is working to achieve consistency in all areas, but during the Secretary's conformation and budget hearings, and in meetings with legislators, the message he heard loud and clear was that there is a perceived inconsistency among constituents when it comes to regulation of Marcellus Shale drilling activity," DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh told NGI's Shale Daily.

Although the DEP did not make the policy change public, its stance is not entirely unexpected. In a January interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, before his inauguration, Gov. Tom Corbett said he wanted "fair and consistent" regulation of Marcellus Shale development.

"I am a cop," the former state attorney general said. "I always believe in fair enforcement of the regulations. Everyone knows I am pretty much a straight arrow. We will enforce the regulations. It's in the best interest of the companies and the environment" (see Shale Daily, Jan. 5).

The new policy drew immediate criticism, though.

In a statement on his blog, Facts of the Day, former DEP Secretary John Hanger said the move "represents a sharp break from the long-standing practice going back at least five secretaries and three governors of allowing professional DEP inspectors who are the only ones at the site and doing the actual inspections to make the initial decision on whether a violation of regulation exists."

He noted that the change only applies to Marcellus Shale drilling and not any other industry regulated by the DEP, but he added that he did not believe the natural gas industry lobbied for the change.

Citizen's for Pennsylvania's Future said the policy "effectively chills enforcement and oversight of an industry that has not proven to the public that it can operate safely. It makes a joke of inspections and undercuts the professionalism of field inspectors."

Through Feb. 2, the most recent figures available, the DEP had conducted 30 inspections of Marcellus Shale drilling activities this year, issuing 68 violations and taking six enforcement actions, on pace to fall below the 634 inspections, 1,227 violations and 308 enforcement actions from 2010.

In his first budget, Corbett anticipated Marcellus Shale permits tripling between 2009 and 2014, but he forecast enforcement matters for the entire DEP staying flat at 2009 levels (see Shale Daily, March 9).

Following news about the policy change, state Sen. Jim Ferlo, a Democrat from the Pittsburgh area, called for the Pennsylvania Inspector General and the state Senate to investigate the new rules.