Governor Wolf’s pick to head the state Department of Environmental Protection is defending the way the agency has handled proposed changes to gas drilling regulations.
At a public meeting last week, representatives from the state’s Marcellus Shale industry sharply criticized the agency and suggested the Wolf administration illegally appointed non-voting members to its newly formed Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board (TAB). The new members include representatives from academia and the environmental community.
Drillers argue these new appointments– which occurred shortly after Wolf took office– have no place on the TAB, which gives technical recommendations.
“This is an attempt to be as transparent as possible,” says Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley.
DEP has been revising its oil and gas regulations since 2011. In December 2013, the rules became available for public comment. The agency held nine hearings across the state and received more than 24,000 comments. Shortly after Wolf took office, the DEP made a slew of significant changes– imposing more stringent rules for things like waste, noise, and streams. The new draft regulations will be available for another 30-day comment period on April 4th.
Quigley says the agency has the authority to create advisory groups and add non-voting members.
“It’s interesting that was the line of attack,” he says of the industry’s objections. “These boards are not a rule-making body. They advise the agency. I think the more advice we get, the better.”Last week state Rep. John Maher (R- Allegheny) wrote to Quigley to complain about the TAB appointments. Maher compared the situation to a 1945 dystopian novel by George Orwell, writing that it, “reminds me of Animal Farm’s sad devolution to institutionalizing the precept that some are more equal than others. Transparency demands otherwise.”
Legally, the DEP can completely ignore the TAB’s recommendations if it wants to. Drillers said they feel like the agency has already ignored their comments on the draft regulations.
Among other changes, the DEP is seeking to discourage the use of large wastewater impoundment ponds. Existing impoundments will need to be shut down or re-permitted within three years. Quigley says they have leaked and contaminated groundwater and soil.
“These facilities– as currently permitted– are posing an unnecessary risk,” he says. “We’re proposing to subject them to a much higher construction standard.”
Quigley says the department wants drillers to adopt best practices and singled out three companies– Shell, Chevron, and Southwestern– as going above and beyond the state regulations.
“There are 67 companies doing unconventional gas development in Pennsylvania right now and only six use the open wastewater impoundments,” he says.