After nearly three years of working to update aspects of the state’s oil and gas regulations, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has taken what it’s calling an “unprecedented” step to extend the public comment period on several proposals for another 30 days.

Regulators are currently considering the impacts of the oil and gas industry on the state’s environment. The proposed regulatory changes would update Chapter 78 of the state code, which sets out environmental protection standards (see Shale Daily, Jan. 14). The Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board first approved the proposals in August (see Shale Daily, Aug. 29, 2013).

Seven public hearings had been scheduled regarding the proposals. Those got under way across the state on Dec. 14 and were scheduled to conclude on Thursday in Indiana County. Although some environmental groups have said the DEP is taking far too long to implement the additional protections (see Shale Daily, March 30, 2012), the agency said it has heard from both the industry and the public about the need to extend the comment period.

Responding to concerns about the time it has taken to implement the proposals, DEP spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz said the “regulatory process is long, but crucial. We’re trying to forge the best possible regulations with input from environmental groups, the industry and people who are just generally interested in these regulations.”

Another two hearings have been scheduled in Warren and Bradford counties, located in the northwest and northeast parts of the state, respectively. The hearings will conclude on Feb. 12, while the public comment period is open online until March 30.

A large part of the reason the agency decided to extend the public hearing process, Kasianowitz said, was because of repeated requests from conventional oil and gas drillers in the state, which will also be affected by the proposed regulations.

“This all started during the holidays. We had requests coming from the public and conventional drillers who wanted more hearings in counties where they have a heavy presence,” she said. “That’s why we have scheduled a hearing in Warren County. Nine hearings and a 90-day public comment period is unprecedented.”

The proposals will also require operators to identify and plug any abandoned wells within 1,000 feet of new pads. They will also require secondary containment units, such as liners, dikes, berms and double-walled storage tanks.

In testimony against the regulations, the Marcellus Shale Coalition has said the new requirements for abandoned wells would lead to “open-ended obligations” for all oil and gas companies, adding that the state’s regulations are already strong enough.

The rule changes will not be implemented for more than a year, according to the DEP, which will need to review and respond to all public comments after the period closes.