The head of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) said the agency needs $1 million to hire seven additional conservation officers in order to patrol waterways in the Marcellus Shale to look for oil and gas polluters.
PFBC Executive Director John Arway told NGI’s Shale Daily that during initial discussions with state lawmakers over Act 13 — Pennsylvania’s omnibus Marcellus Shale law — the $1 million was included for seven waterways conservation officers dedicated to enforcement, inspection and surveillance duties in the shale play. The agency was to also receive funding to cover permit review oversight.
“The legislature included us for permit review, but not for enforcement,” Arway said Thursday. “We currently get $1 million a year out of the Act 13 impact fee. We use that to help the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] make sure that the environmental risk analysis is done to make sure fish and aquatic life are protected around the wells that are being drilled.”
Arway said the PFBC doesn’t receive any money from the state’s general fund; the agency operates on revenue generated from license sales, boat registration fees and the federal excise tax on sport, fishing and boating equipment, which is redistributed back to the states from the federal government.
“Those are our three sources of funding,” Arway said. “We don’t get a nickel out of the general fund, except for those special funds that we get from the impact fee and the transportation fund for the tax on gasoline that boaters use in boats.”
Arway said many people get confused over the difference between enforcement efforts by the DEP and the PFBC. The Pennsylvania Fish Commission, the PFBC’s predecessor, was founded in 1866, making it one of the oldest water pollution enforcement agencies in the nation. He added that there was another distinction: DEP uses civil law, while PFBC uses criminal law.
“We’ve had violators challenge us that they’re facing double jeopardy,” Arway said. “They’re parallel but very different laws. DEP regulates the industry. They’re able to tell the industry what to do, and if they don’t do it they get punished according to the permit that DEP issues. Our authority goes to punishing someone for either killing fish or polluting water and causing damage to Commonwealth property, and then we seek compensation for those damages.”
The debate over whether to enact an oil and gas severance tax in Pennsylvania has dragged on for years and has become an issue in the upcoming gubernatorial election. Earlier this month, lawmakers in the General Assembly passed a budget without such a tax (see Shale Daily,July 1;May 21). In general, Democrats support a severance tax while Republicans and the oil and gas industry oppose it.
Arway said the PFBC should be included in any future funding discussions.
“We would like to be included in the discussion, as it evolves, about either a new severance tax or revisions to the impact fee,” Arway said. “We believe that would be the most probable source of funding for these kinds of enforcement efforts.
“We’re not looking for tax revenue to do this, but if indeed there is serious discussion about either a severance tax or changing the impact fee, we should be included in that discussion. The services we provide to both the Commonwealth and the industry through our enforcement efforts are very important services that should be compensated.”
Arway said the agency is actually short 16 officers statewide. The officers all serve under the PFBC’s Bureau of Law Enforcement.
“Pollution response has always been the top priority of the agency, and it will continue to be,” Arway said. “If somebody calls and tells us there’s pollution from a Marcellus site or a gas pipeline, we don’t tell them that we don’t have enough staff or money to respond. We do respond, but unfortunately we can only respond to calls. We’re not out there looking to make sure that our streams are being protected.
“We’re down 16 officers statewide. Some of those [open positions] are in districts that have pretty intense Marcellus development. They’re being covered by officers in surrounding counties, so it’s very difficult for them to go and do surveillance when they have multiple counties to cover.”
Arway said the PFBC is currently recruiting for a new class of officers. According to the PFBC, a 52-week training program for new officers is scheduled to begin in July 2015.
“We should be filling those 16 positions, so we’ll be in a better condition to do some of this work on our own, even if we don’t get the $1 million,” Arway said. “But if we do, dedicating those officers to the Marcellus play would be the right thing to do.”
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