Pennsylvania has a “well managed” and professional” regulatory program for oil and gas operations in the state, but should make four specific changes to how it regulates hydraulic fracturing (fracking), according to a report by the nonprofit State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations Inc. (Stronger).

In a 203-page report published in September, Stronger lauded the access granted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and took note of the agency expanding the ranks of its Office of Oil and Gas Management from 64 to 202 employees over the last four years.

“During this same period of time, DEP restructured the oil and gas program to improve management of the oil and gas program, and to provide for centralized and more consistent enforcement of violations,” Stronger said.

“In addition, the review team has noted that recently adopted legislation distinguishes between unconventional shale gas development and conventional gas development, providing for opportunities to address unique challenges associated with unconventional gas development.”

Beginning with the 1H2012 report, the DEP began reporting all unconventional production without a breakdown by shale/tight gas and oil plays. The agency has also published a conventional well production report for the full-year 2012. The DEP said the changes were mandated by Act 13, the state’s omnibus Marcellus Shale law (seeShale Daily, Feb. 15, 2012).

Stronger also commended the DEP for its orphan and abandoned well program, stormwater management program and comprehensive study of Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (TENORM), which it said was “the first of its kind in the nation.”

On fracking, Stronger cited the DEP’s decision to amend its well design and construction standards in February 2011. “The requirements include standards for casing and cementing to meet anticipated pressures and protect resources and the environment,” Stronger said.

But Stronger also recommended that, with fracking, the DEP “maintain consistent standardized data for tracking violations and enforcement actions to facilitate accurate internal DEP performance evaluation, and to provide accurate information to the public.

“DEP has utilized different methods of evaluating program effectiveness and operator compliance since initiating its compliance baseline program in 2005. DEP should analyze past compliance data, using methods to periodically determine the effectiveness of the regulatory and enforcement program over time, and that the results of such evaluation made public.”

Stronger recommended that the DEP complete its TENORM study to determine whether the agency is adequately screening drilling wastes for radioactivity.

“If DEP determines it necessary to develop an oilfield TENORM program, particular attention should be paid to sampling and analysis procedures to characterize TENORM wastes coupled with appropriate action levels relative to background concentrations to ensure worker safety,” Stronger said. “In addition, opportunities for on-site disposal of TENORM wastes generated during production should be considered.”

“If the TENORM study indicates that specific E&P TENORM regulations are warranted, the review team also recommends that the regulations address permitting, construction, operational and closure standards for pits containing TENORM, technical criteria for burial and land spreading of TENORM wastes, and standards for centralized and commercial facilities.”

Stronger also recommended that the DEP evaluate how it decides adequate surface casing depths for drillers, as well as the criteria for collecting pre-drill water samples.

“DEP does not have a consistent method to determine surface casing setting depths to ensure protection of fresh groundwater,” Stronger said, adding that “the determination of the surface casing seat depth is up to the operator.

“DEP has not established numerical criteria for fresh groundwater, thus operator determination is subjective. Different companies use different rationale for determining surface casing seat depth. DEP should take a more active role in establishing criteria in this regard.”

Stronger said that under Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Act, conventional well operators are presumed to be responsible for incidents of water pollution within six months of drilling, provided that the incident site is within 1,000 feet of a well. The act also presumes unconventional operators within 12 months of the later stages of completing, drilling, stimulating or altering a well are also responsible for water pollution within 2,500 feet of a well.

“An operator may defend itself against such presumptive liability by collecting and analyzing pre-drill samples at water supplies to characterize baseline conditions prior to drilling, completion, and fracture stimulation,” Stronger said. “However, the DEP has been reluctant to provide guidance on the pre-drill sampling and testing of water wells since it might impact operator liability… greater guidance on sampling procedures and testing of indicator parameters is appropriate.”