The Pennsylvania House and Senate energy committees this week voted against the state Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) overhaul of regulations for the oil and natural gas industries.

The votes came from both Republicans and Democrats just days before next Thursday’s (April 21) Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) hearing to vet the proposed rulemaking, which took more than four years to complete. The rules include separate regulations for the conventional and unconventional industries. The DEP hosted 12 public hearings and received 28,000 public comments during the process.

Conventional producers and the trade organizations that represent them, though, have accused DEP of writing ambiguous regulations for both segments of the industry (see Shale Daily, April 30, 2015). They have also claimed that the DEP ignored Act 126 of 2014, which required the agency to adopt separate regulations for the conventional/unconventional industries (see Shale Daily, July 27, 2014).

“The DEP and the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) have ignored the law and violated several aspects of the rulemaking process in putting these regulations together,” said state Rep. Martin Causer, who represents parts of Northwest Pennsylvania, where the conventional industry has a big footprint. “That process resulted in a series of unreasonable regulations that fail to recognize the vast differences between conventional and unconventional drilling and, in fact, threaten the future of the 150-year old conventional industry.”

Although the votes are symbolic, committee members advised the IRRC to not approve the regulations. While Democrats showed support for the new package, members expressed skepticism about how the rules were drafted. Democratic Sen. John Yudichack, of Northeast Pennsylvania, who also serves as the minority chairman on the Senate energy committee, said the rulemaking process was bypassed in a number of ways.

Lawmakers noted that the DEP and EQB disregarded votes of disapproval by the Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board and the Conventional Oil and Gas Advisory Committee, which both help the DEP craft regulations for the industries. The new rules deal with reducing impacts on public resources, preventing spills, waste management and restoring well sites after drilling, among other things (see Shale Daily, Jan. 6).

While there are separate regulations in the package, both conventional and unconventional producers would be required to adhere to some of the same rules, such as closer regulatory scrutiny for wells near public resource protection zones like parks and schools. All operators would be required to conduct reviews of abandoned and active wells near their pads prior to drilling.

The committees deemed some of those redundancies “costly” and “illegal.” The state legislature has an opportunity to vote against the rules, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf could veto it. If the rules aren’t approved, it could take DEP another two years to draft new regulations, Causer said.

DEP Secretary John Quigley, who Wolf appointed last year, said before the rules were finalized that they would be modernized and strengthened (see Shale Daily, March 9, 2015). In a statement, Quigley said the rules had been written with an “unprecedented amount of public participation,” adding that he’s confident that the IRRC will approve them.

The Pennsylvania Independent Petroleum Producers Association has filed a lawsuit against the regulations in Commonwealth Court, requesting that they be declared unlawful and unenforceable (see Shale Daily, March 28). The complaint also asks that the IRRC hearing be enjoined until the court can issue a ruling.