A natural gas well in a rural field near Canton in Bradford County.

REUTERS/Les Stone /LANDOV

Bill would roll back standards on conventional oil and gas drillers

  • Marie Cusick
Kimberly Paynter/Newsworks.org

Conventional drilling, unlike drilling for the Marcellus Shale, does not go as deep into the ground.” credit=” 

A new bill in the state senate seeks to roll back environmental requirements on Pennsylvania’s conventional oil and gas industry, alleviating what its sponsor calls the “unbearable burden” of tougher standards targeted at larger, Marcellus Shale drillers.

The measure marks the latest move in a protracted legal and political battle over how to regulate the state’s oil and gas industry. SB 1088 was introduced in March by Sen. Scott Hutchinson (R- Butler) and is now before the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

Conventional operators tend to be smaller companies that drill shallower oil and gas wells. They have long complained they’ve been unfairly thrust into a regulatory scheme targeted at major corporations that drill deeper, Marcellus wells.

In 2012 the state passed Act 13, a major overhaul of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas law. At the time, the law had not seen significant changes since 1984, despite technological advances in the industry. Act 13 placed new environmental requirements on both conventional and Marcellus drillers.

Environmental groups say the proposed standards in SB 1088 are in some ways weaker than Pennsylvania’s original 1984 Oil and Gas Act.

“There’s a lot of problems with the current language we see,” said Rob Altenburg, of the environmental group PennFuture. “We have an environmental rights amendment in the state constitution that requires the state government to act as a trustee for natural resources. This bill really disregards that provision, almost entirely.”

In a letter Wednesday to the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, the Environmental Defense Fund and Pennsylvania Environmental Council called SB 1088 a “wholesale weakening of necessary protection standards … that are accepted common practice in the industry and other oil and gas producing states.”

Among the major changes in the bill:

  • Revives a controversial notion (similar to one struck down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2013) preempting local government regulation of oil and gas activity.
  • Creates exemptions from Pennsylvania’s Storage Tank and Spill Prevention Act.
  • Exempts certain wastewater treatment facilities from water protection
    requirements.
  • Removes language requiring additional review by environmental regulators of well site impacts to public resources, such as state parks.
  • Removes a requirement for drillers who negatively impact a water supply to restore it, in some cases, to standards exceeding the Safe Drinking Water Act.
  • Replaces the current “notices of violation” given out by state environmental regulators with a new warning system for “minor violations.” Prohibits the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from using these warnings when calculating penalties.
  • Puts a three-year expiration date on all DEP policies relating to conventional operations that were adopted after April 16, 2012.

Sen. Hutchinson did not respond to requests seeking comment on the bill, nor did two trade groups representing Pennsylvania’s conventional oil and gas companies. In a memo to fellow lawmakers Hutchinson calls conventional drillers “unique family owned” businesses and blames Act 13 for bringing the “conventional industry to near collapse.”

Governor Tom Wolf and the state Department of Environmental Protection oppose the bill, according to Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott, and they have “communicated significant concerns to the General Assembly.”