A rulemaking designed to strengthen environmental protection performance standards governing the natural gas industry has been given a cautionary green light by Pennsylvania regulators, with the final outcome to be determined following an extended public comment period.

The proposed regulations by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would implement more of the mandates under the omnibus Act 13 of 2012, which represented the first comprehensive update of the state's oil and gas laws in nearly 30 years. Gov. Tom Corbett in February 2012 signed Act 13 into law (see Shale DailyFeb. 15, 2012). The latest rulemaking would enact Chapter 78 of the act.

According to DEP, the draft regulations would enhance oil and gas rules that govern impacts to public resources, such as parks and wildlife areas; prevent spills; manage waste; and restore well sites after drilling. Additionally, the draft includes standards affecting how gathering lines and temporary pipelines are constructed, as well as provisions to identify and monitor abandoned wells close to well sites.

"Through Gov. Corbett's leadership, Pennsylvania is proving that economic opportunity does not have to occur at the expense of environmental stewardship," Acting DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo said. "We are working hard to ensure that natural gas development is done according to the high and consistent standards Pennsylvanians expect."

The state's Environmental Quality Board approved the proposals on Tuesday. The draft is to be reviewed by the state's Attorney General's Office and the Office of General Counsel. Following the review, the comment period would be opened. DEP has recommended that the public comment period for the rulemaking be extended to 60 days from the usual 30 days, with at least six public hearings across the state to gather as much input as possible.

"This proposed regulation includes comprehensive amendments that are designed to reduce potential environmental impacts from oil and gas activities," Abruzzo said.

The proposed rulemaking is posted at DEP's website, www.dep.state.pa.us. On the site, click "Draft Oil and Gas Regulations."

The Environmental Defense Fund and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council jointly commended the board's approval to move forward with the public comment period.

 "Moving forward on Chapter 78 shows leadership on the part of the Corbett administration and DEP, and it is an important step toward greater environmental protections related to natural gas and oil production in Pennsylvania," they stated. "The approved regulatory package includes, among other things, important environmental enhancements called for by Act 13, such as water supply restoration standards, public resource protection, waste management at well sites and pre-hydraulic fracturing assessment. Failure to support Chapter 78 would have further delayed the 16-month time period since Pennsylvania legislators made Act 13 into law."