Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which includes under its regulatory umbrella much of the state’s natural gas and oil industry, needs to open its doors wider to public scrutiny, said acting DEP secretary E. Christopher Abruzzo.

“I want to make the agency and the work that we do more transparent to Pennsylvanians,” Abruzzo, who has been nominated by Gov. Tom Corbett to have “acting” removed from his title (see Shale Daily, Sept. 24), said in an interview Wednesday with Jim Willis, editor of Marcellus Drilling News and contributor to NGI’s Shale Daily.

“It is a fantastic agency; it is filled with really bright, dedicated professionals, and I think over a number of years there has been this air of secrecy around the work that’s done at the department.

“I don’t understand it because the work that is done is scientific work, it’s engineering work. The agency has a lot to be proud of…so my goal from day one has been to try to open the agency up, let folks see what it is we do on a daily basis.”

Corbett tapped Abruzzo, his deputy chief of staff, to serve as acting secretary of the DEP after Michael Krancer resigned to return to practice law in Philadelphia (see Shale Daily,March 25). Abruzzo has held both positions in the interim. Abruzzo’s nomination has been endorsed by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.

DEP’s ongoing monitoring of air quality near drill sites has found little evidence of dangerous emissions, Abruzzo said. Earlier this year, DEP reported that emissions from natural gas production and processing facilities, including wells and compressor stations, dropped considerably since 2008, despite the Marcellus Shale boom (see Shale Daily, Feb. 14).

“The feedback I’m receiving from my air quality folks is positive in the sense that the air quality issues that we’re concerned about appear to be, in terms of emissions from well pad sites, appear to be minimal at best, and that’s a good sign. We’re going to continue to test air quality around those sites. We’re engaged in a long-term air quality study now.”

DEP still has a pending matter related to XTO Energy’s discharge of Marcellus Shale drilling wastewater in Lycoming County three years ago, Abruzzo said. Earlier this month, the state’s attorney general filed criminal charges against the ExxonMobil Corp. affiliate for the November 2010 discharge (see Shale Daily, Sept. 12). The incident was caused by an open valve on a wastewater storage tank, which ExxonMobil had said was an accident. ExxonMobil has agreed to pay a $100,000 penalty and spend up to $20 million in a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (see Shale Daily, Sept. 20; July 22). ExxonMobil admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

“The attorney general has had experienced prosecutors and investigators reviewing the matter. They perhaps have seen something in the case that others have not seen…I know that the office of attorney general takes their responsibility as environmental enforcers very seriously, and yet I know that XTO was very cooperative with our agency and other agencies in remediating the harm that occurred at that site,” Abruzzo said.

He dismissed critics who say DEP has too cozy a relationship with the state’s natural gas industry.

“Perhaps from where those folks are standing it may appear that way because clearly there is communication between the agency and the natural gas industry, but it is necessary. We are regulating them, and we want to regulate them in a way that is safe and is effective. But we also recognize that there can sometimes be unintended consequences of regulation. We don’t want to impose regulations that would essentially snuff the industry out. I would point out that from day one of the Corbett administration, we have been focused on facts and science as it relates to the regulations that we impose and the actions we take against the industry…

“If you ask folks in the natural gas industry, they might have a different opinion about how cozy the relationship is.”