Did the Department of Environmental Protection order natural gas drillers to shut down operations in northern Pennsylvania, due to impending flooding? And, if so, did the drillers comply?
The answer to the first question depends on who you ask. As for the second, county officials say yes, but due to a loophole in state regulations, DEP doesn’t have the information to provide an answer.
As the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee dumped inches of rain on Pennsylvania, the Corbett Administration began preparing for flooding along the Susquehanna River and its tributaries. Governor Corbett said he was concerned flood water would overwhelm drilling rigs and their waste disposal ponds. “I asked them, through DEP, to shut down production,” Corbett said yesterday. The Republican made similar comments Saturday, according to the Times-Tribune.
Mr. Corbett said he told his Cabinet officials to get word to Marcellus Shale drillers that they needed to act promptly to prevent any overflows from well wastewater retention ponds due to the flooding.
“I’m told there has not been an overflow for any retention pond,” he added.
But DEP’s Williamsport Community Relations Director, Daniel Spadoni, said that wasn’t the case. “DEP did not request companies shut down operation,” he emailed. “The natural gas exploration companies were well aware of the impending weather.”
So what happened? Asked to explain the discrepancy, DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh said there was communication between the department and natural gas drillers, but it didn’t come in the form of an official order. “What the Governor said is consistent with what he asked Sec. Krancer to do last week,” she wrote. “Make it clear to operators that their sites should be prepared for flooding and that the administration would not accept the flooding as an excuse if there were any incidents.”
Did it work? StateImpact checked with emergency officials in Bradford County, who say yes, all drilling activity ceased during the flooding. But DEP couldn’t answer the question, because, as Spadoni wrote, “companies are not required to notify us if they voluntarily halt operations for this reason.”
Gresh confirmed DEP never got a firm answer on how many drillers temporarily shut down. “We can’t say that they all did because they are not required to report to us if they voluntarily shut down.” But, she added, “Whatever contingency measures Pennsylvania’s operators put in place evidently worked, as we have heard of no major incidents related to flooding.”
The Corbett Administration is preparing a comprehensive bill addressing Marcellus Shale regulation. Additionally, the governor will hold a post-flooding post-mortem in the coming weeks, to review what went right and what could be improved next time. The Republican said the notification loophole will be something he addresses. “We should be able to communicate and find out exactly which rigs are shut down and which rigs aren’t,” he said. “And where they need to be shut down. It’s something to take into consideration.”