Energy. Environment. Economy.

Audit questions whether Pa. lawmakers understand fracking

Fracking site.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a fracking) site in Susquehanna County. Fracking is only one phase of shale gas extraction, but the word is often used as a catchall term for the entire process.

A key question during Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom centers on how much damage it’s done to water resources.

According to new information released this week by the state Department of Environmental Protection, water supplies around the commonwealth have been damaged by oil and gas operations 209 times since the end of 2007. This is the first time the agency has released such a tally.

Why did it wait so long?

According to state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, it’s because the agency has been following the letter of the law, but not “the spirit of the law.”

As part of a highly-critical audit of the DEP unveiled Tuesday, DePasquale says he believes state legislators may not have understood the implications of some of the public disclosure language they approved in Act 13– Pennsylvania’s 2012 update of its oil and gas law.

The law requires the department to post an online list of “confirmed cases of subterranean water supply contamination that result from hydraulic fracturing.”

The key term here is “hydraulic fracturing”, which is frequently shortened to “fracking.”

“We believe the General Assembly may not have realized the implications of utilizing the very specific terms of ‘confirmed cases’ and ‘hydraulic fracturing,’” the auditors write. “[The legislature] may have unknowingly hampered, or even made, the provision of the law ineffectual.”

Although the word fracking is often informally used as a catchall term for the entire process of shale gas extraction, it’s actually just one phase of the development– it’s the injection of fluids at high pressure to break up the shale and release gas. According to the DEP, this phase of development has not been shown to contaminate groundwater.

Drilling a well is a separate and distinct phase in the process of gas extraction that happens before fracking occurs.

Marie Cusick/StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drill rig in Susquehanna County. Drilling a well is a separate and distinct phase in the process of gas extraction that happens before fracking can occur.

Instead, water supplies have been damaged by other phases of gas extraction– including methane gas migration during the drilling phase. The DEP’s list of 209 damaged water supplies includes both unconventional and conventional oil and gas operations.

The tally does not reveal what caused the problems in each instance. It also includes cases of reduced water flow rates– which is not a contamination issue.

Drew Crompton is the top staffer for Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati (R- Jefferson), and he was heavily involved in the passage of Act 13.

Crompton calls DePasquale’s suggestion that lawmakers didn’t understand the issue “nonsense.”

“We knew exactly what we were doing. We want people’s water to be protected,” he says. “Fracking was the issue— the direct actual production of the well was concerning for a lot of folks. That’s why the language was written that way.”

In its official response to the audit, the DEP makes a similar argument.

“DEP does not agree with the Auditor General’s interpretation that the term ‘hydraulic fracturing’ was intended by the legislature to refer to the entire well construction process,” its staff wrote. “DEP does not believe the legislature misunderstood the implications of the terms they specifically used.”

Crompton says many different groups had input into Act 13, and he can’t recall anyone ever taking issue with that section of the law, or the use of the term “hydraulic fracturing.”

“Nobody raised any questions when we wrote the language that way,” he says. “A lot of different groups and people viewed that language over the course of many months.”

He’s open to discussions about ways to broaden the language, but thinks it could be difficult to spell out precisely when the gas industry’s responsibility begins and ends.

“I think there’s a point to when you could stretch this language to be ineffective the other way—when does it start?” Crompton says. “Accidents do happen. People’s water –thankfully very, very occasionally–does get contaminated.”





  • KevinJames

    While nobody has been able to definitively prove that the hydraulic fracturing aspect of the drilling was the cause of contamination, the drillers also can’t prove it wasn’t. The question at hand should be, would that particular well have ever been drilled there if shale fracturing wasn’t the intended purpose? Most of the wells being drilled in PA now are specifically being opened to be fracked, in which case any step in the process that contaminates the surrounding area should be considered caused by fracking.

  • Dan Ferrell

    Is there an official list of “complaints” on file , that’s available for public viewing? I’m very curious as to how many complaints there have been, including the one’s not acted upon yet……or, even more interesting, the one’s dismissed by this , apparently dysfunctional DEP, at least according to the official audit, and, by dysfunctional , I mean, extraordinarily understaffed… the one’s on the job are doing best they can, no doubt in my mind….anyone know where I can find that? I would think that would be a great story to investigate, track down the people, ask them their experience……..hope you consider it…

    • KevinJames
      If you take a look at this article you’ll see that the Pennsylvania DEP actually doesn’t record most complaints on purpose. If you were to call today to say the well on your property is spewing something noxious into the air, they have two weeks to show up and test it. If the issue is no longer going on when they show up, let’s say ten days later, they don’t even record the complaint. Doesn’t matter if it happened for the preceding 9 days or not, if they don’t detect it they get rid of any record of the complaint. If this isn’t putting the corporations over the safety and health of the citizens I don’t know how else to explain it.

      • PaulOtruba

        If you don’t follow reporting procedure to the letter with DEP, they are not bound to respond. There has to be structure for without it, there is chaos. Learn the procedure and follow, including extensive documentation. Yes, DEP is a political monkey and the legislature holds the bananas. That’s yours and my Pa State Representatives. ( although, it is debatable who they really represent) Feel like you are getting the banana, its coming from Harrisburg and they dictate the rules. All 2700 or so Pa DEP employees must be grossly challenged and over worked in our 67 counties but then it might be the job description or just a Penn State club. A mere 40 or more DEPers per county diligently taking orders and preserving their employment. Lumber, coal, manufacturing, gas/oil, and now fracking, nothing really changes except for the source of ecocide and the names of the corrupted.

    • Scott Cannon

      There were over 1000 complaints. 209 were caused by gas drilling , Some by other means, and a good number is undetermined because of lack of scientific studies.

    • Scott Cannon

      Anyone who was paying attention knew this a year ago. This reporter had to sue the DEP to get these files. The DEP wasn’t keeping track of how many aquifers were contaminated. You would think that would be job #1.

    • Scott Cannon

      I did just that.

    • Scott Cannon
  • NorthernTier

    Really, the legislators didn’t catch on that the industry’s no water contamination claim relied on a technicality. That is, (allegedly) no water contamination had been causatively linked to the fracking step?

    “Subterranean water supply” is also open to interpretation. Does this mean aquifers, wells, and/or springs?

    • Dan Ferrell

      there is no doubt in my mind they knew exactly what they were doing, the top notch , big money, extremely capable lawyers and lobbyists they employ are the best in the business…….I’m sure they even knew it would eventually be called out, but , they got years in first, so, it was a win …despite what new clarifications , regulations, etc. are brought up in the future…..just business, it’s their nature, they are corporations, they exist solely for the shareholder and increasing the value of their shares, period….getting stuff like this slid into laws, just a price of doing business, an investment….it’s legal still…, it’s fair game….I don’t fault them tell the truth, I fault the politicians , they made the choices in the end….corporations will do what they do, legally usually, to make profits, period, it’s our representatives that need to step up for PA…

      • Victoria Switzer

        I read a book about mountain top removal in WV. The coal companies went in and began the project without appropriate permits and got away with it since they were so far into removing the mountain and burying the mountain streams that DEP said “ah, go ahead and finish”. Gas and oil and coal rely on this act first approach. Get the land, get the leases and get those wells in before they know what is happening! The Marcellus Express is not stopping but we certainly owe it to our children to slow it down, make sure the “tracks” are as safe as possible and that the conductor is not a crook or paid to look the other way when violations occur. Going back to permits-how many of those were done properly? When I questioned that? DEP basically said it was no big deal. Then there is “mitigation”. That is a make believe land. Have you ever seen a mitigated wetland? How about a mitigated mountain stream?

  • Sad Panda

    I wonder if the writers of this blog understand anything about drilling. Or if their expertise is limited to identifying stories that are critical of the gas industry and/or Tom Corbett, and then happily regurgitating them.

    In case you wanted to see what ACTUAL journalism looks like, you can read Don Gilliland’s column on this report. Don is no cheerleader of the industry, and he calls it like he sees it. Funny how there is practically no mention of any of the points he brings up on Stateimpact PA’s “coverage” of this audit.

    StateImpact needs to step its game up and give this dynamic industry a FAIR shake. One only needs to scroll through the headlines, almost ALL of which are negative and incendiary. Do the writers just hate drilling/Tom Corbett, or are they only interested in writing muckracking pieces that could advance their careers? Either way, this egregiously slanted coverage is tarnishing the good name of the StateImpact project, the names of their predecessors who built it into a well-respected source of news, and NPR in general.

  • Ladderback

    The most famous water contamination in Pa was probably in Dimock. It was caused by drilling, not fracking. By specifying “fracking” the number of cases of contamination which will be posted goes down substantially — actually it goes down to zero. The Legislature knew exactly what it was doing. It’s the public that doesn’t know what “fracking” is.

  • Brian Oram

    The term hydraulic fracturing is one distinct phase. It should not be used inappropriately to include all phases from pad construction, drilling, development, production, pipelines, etc. “Words matter”.

    • KevinJames

      Most of the wells being drilled today would not be getting drilled if fracking wasn’t the intent. As well, they would not be drilling so close to populated areas without fracking being the intent. So, in those regards, trying to say that a casing failure, or any other part of the process, is not the result of fracking is simply deflecting blame.

    • PaulOtruba

      I will agree and possibly disagree with you in part. The many related phases of the “hydraulic fracking” process tie together as a whole with equipment, support and methodology evolving around the actual hydraulic fracking. Calling the whole connected processes simply “fracking” is appropriate. Our language evolves, concepts evolve. The “hydraulic fracking” phase is just one part of the process, I agree. I have worked on 40 different sites during all phases of this process. “Words matter” in court and in intelligent conversation.

    • Brian Oram

      Reply to both comments – the only way to address a problem or concern is to identify the problem and the pathway that the problem was created. Hydraulic fracturing did not cause the problems of not having enough casing, or loss of circulation while drilling, a spill, inadequate cement bonding to the casing, presence of shallow thermogenic gas, existing contamination that migrates, or a pipeline burst. If you follow your logic and the last step in the development is to blame – then it is clear we are the problem. We are the ones that use and consume this energy. It is clear why there is an interest to blame the hydraulic fracturing process – it is difficult to see, observe, understand, and uses chemicals that are not understood by many. As I mentioned in West Virginia – the question should NOT has hydraulic fracturing caused a private well impact (The answer is NO). The question should be has building of the pad, use of lined pits for storing wastewater, poor in inadequate casing/cement, and/or spills cause or lead to surfacewater and groundwater impacts – the answer is YES. As I said words matter and so does the question. I have been saying this since 2008.

  • Brian Oram

    PS – we are still reviewing pre-drill and post drill data –

  • brasch

    As one who has been following fracking in PA since 2009, I find it astonishing at the replies made by the Corbett admin. to this auditor genl. report. The fact that the DEP and the top aide to Scarnatti (a major push for fracking) disagreed w/ this report, and the comments they made, proves they care little abt the people and more about the oil/gas giants. (Walter Brasch, author: FRACKING PENNSYLVANIA)

  • Mike M

    “Fracking was the issue— the direct actual production of the well was
    concerning for a lot of folks. That’s why the language was written that

    What a complete disingenuous comment by Mr. Compton. Yes, people have been concerned about impacts of the fracking step, but is that all they have been concerned about? Not about the methane migration, casing and pipeline integrity, accidental spills, and overall waste water management? Get real.

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