Republican lawmakers defend shale gas industry after grand jury report says state failed to protect public health from fracking

Secretary of Environmental Resources and Energy panel said he was offended by AG's characterization of natural gas industry 

  • Rachel McDevitt

Republican state lawmakers are defending the natural gas industry following the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report that found the Department of Environmental Protection failed to protect the public from the health effects of fracking.

Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, called the  industry “one of the most regulated in the nation” and said the Wolf Administration has been trying to degrade it through a proposed severance tax. 

“When the industry continued to survive on the world stage, the administration’s response is to rehash claims through the Attorney General, which have been repudiated years ago. Many of these claims were actually rejected in Pennsylvania court cases,” Yaw said in a statement.

Yaw, who represents an area with significant drilling activity, did not address the grand jury’s finding that many families who live near well sites were sickened by fouled water and air as a result of fracking operations. 

Susan Phillips/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Kim McEvoy is one of more than 4,000 residents who contacted DEP after noticing changes to water quality she believed were connected to nearby gas drilling. DEP concluded drilling did not impact her water. She has since moved away to live in an area connected to a municipal water supply.

“We heard clear and convincing evidence that leads us to conclude that industry operations in Pennsylvania have made our children sick,” the report said.

The grand jury said it is not against fracking, but said “if the activity is to be permitted, it still must be regulated appropriately, in ways that prevent reckless harms.” It recommended eight changes, including stricter regulation of the industry.

At a news conference on the report Thursday, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said, “Regulators were supposed to prevent abuse by big corporations, and level the playing field. But they didn’t.”

Mike Straub, spokesman for House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), said the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee will determine any potential next steps. Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), who chairs that committee, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware), minority chair of the committee, has pushed for more oversight of the industry and supports fracking bans in some areas. 

Given that Republicans control both chambers in the legislature, he said, “I don’t expect any of these recommendations to be acted upon this term.”

Grand jury recommendations

After a two-year investigation, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report in June faulting government agencies for failing to protect public health from the effects of fracking. The grand jury’s report included eight recommendations:
-Increase the set-back of all oil and gas wells from 500 to 2500 feet from any home or business, and more for schools and hospitals.
-Make public the chemicals used in the fracking process
-Make the transportation of toxic waste safer
-Regulate smaller pipelines, or gathering pipelines “based on risk, not size”
-Strengthen air pollution regulations of fracking-related sites
-Assess public health in relation to fracking (the DOH has agreed to do so, Shapiro said)
-Slow the “revolving door” by limiting the ability of legislators and state employees to leave public service and go to work for the industry
-Allow the AG’s office “original criminal jurisdiction over unconventional oil and gas companies”

Rep. Cris Dush (R-Indiana), secretary of the environmental resources and energy committee, said he was offended by the Attorney General’s characterization of the natural gas industry. 

He said there are some bad actors, but believes they are “very much in the minority.”

Two drillers — Range Resources and Cabot Oil and Gas — have been charged with environmental crimes as a result of the grand jury investigation. But the report painted a picture of widespread harm to public health from fracking and of government agencies that let drillers get away with too much.

The grand jury heard from 30 current and former DEP employees, and investigators interviewed an additional 25 employees. Investigators spoke with more than 75 families about their experience with the natural gas industry.

Testimony from 12 families included in the report spoke to a litany of harms from the gas industry, including noise, water issues, and illness. It found the DEP, through miscommunication, poor training, or undue deference to the  industry, was unprepared to regulate it during the first few years of the gas rush. And the report criticizes some provisions of Act 13, the law governing Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry that was passed by a Republican-led legislature in 2012.

Dush said he would need more time to look over the report’s recommendations, but opposes one of them: the AG’s office, he said, should not be given authority to bring criminal cases against the industry. He said the report seemed political.

“I don’t want him [Shapiro] using that platform for two years to run for governor,” he said.

He said problems can be addressed in local court systems.

Dush said there are problems within DEP, describing employees who are unqualified and untrained or who look for violations just to raise money for the department through fines. 

He said the legislature should better exercise its subpoena power to root out issues in the department. He said he does not support a budget increase for DEP, like the one Gov. Tom Wolf originally proposed this year before the coronavirus pandemic upended the normal budgeting process.

Vitali has been pushing for increased funding to DEP. He said more staffing and resources will be key to holding the shale gas industry accountable, and said that should have been noted in the grand jury report. 

“I think there’s a glaring omission here, which is that the Department of Environmental Protection has been chronically and intentionally underfunded for the past 15 years,” Vitali said. 

He also disputed what the report called the “cozy” relationship between the industry and DEP, though he acknowledged some staffers do leave DEP for higher paying jobs in the industry.

Vitali said the legislature failed Pennsylvanians when it passed Act 13. He called the law “very weak” and said it needs to be improved. 

A Republican-led General Assembly under GOP Gov. Tom Corbett passed Act 13 in 2012. In its response to the grand jury report, DEP blamed the Corbett Administration for a “flawed ideological approach” to regulating the oil and gas industry. The grand jury report said DEP has improved under the Wolf administration, but said it failed “through multiple administrations.”

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Governor Corbett speaks to the Shale Gas Insight conference in September 2011.

Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks), now minority chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, was serving in the House when Act 13 passed and said he voted against it.

Santarsiero said he and other Democrats offered a package of bills called the Marcellus Compact, which he said would have addressed some of the issues raised in the report, but they were voted down by a Republican majority. 

Santarsiero, who served as the Chief Deputy Attorney General for Environmental Protection under AG Shapiro before his election to the state Senate, had already put forth legislation to give the AG jurisdiction over the industry, and said he would support legislation to address the report’s other recommendations. 

“Natural gas is a pretty significant part of our energy portfolio here in Pennsylvania. And it will continue to be for the foreseeable future. We need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to require that the industry is doing it in a way that’s consistent with protecting public health,” he said, acknowledging it will take bipartisan cooperation to pass reforms.

Many leaders were silent on the report in the days following its release.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson), a chief architect of Act 13, declined to comment.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) could not be reached for comment.

A spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said he was not available for an interview on the report Friday. She did not respond to an email asking for a statement.

A spokesperson for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) did not respond to a request for comment. 

StateImpact Pennsylvania reporter Donna McDermott contributed to this report.

Read the grand jury report:

 



Pa. Grand Jury Report on Fracking, June 2020 (Text)

Up Next

U.S. Department of Energy putting money into coal ‘innovation’ grants