Did Pennsylvania’s highest court unravel environmental protections for oil and gas?

The state Supreme Court struck down part of Act 13 dealing with stream and wetland setbacks for gas wells.  The law required unconventional gas wells  to be 300 feet from these waterways, and the edge of the well site to be at least 100 feet away.

Tom Downing/ witf

In a 4-2 decision, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court struck down parts of state law dealing with stream and wetland setbacks for oil and gas development. Act 13 had required unconventional gas wells to be at least 300 feet from these waterways, with the edge of the well site at least 100 feet away. Drillers have said they will still adhere to the setbacks, even though they are no longer law.

The state Supreme Court decision to strike down parts of Act 13 as unconstitutional last month was hailed as a victory for local governments and environmental groups who argued the 2012 oil and gas law violated the environmental rights of Pennsylvanians.

But the court decision also undid portions of the law requiring minimum setbacks for oil and gas development near streams and wetlands.

That’s because Act 13 compelled the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to waive the setback requirements if drillers submitted a plan showing they would take adequate precautions to protect waterways. According to the DEP, less than 10 percent of permit applications seek waivers.

The court found this to be unacceptable.

“Even these modest restrictions can be averted by the gas industry,” wrote Chief Justice Ronald Castille in the majority opinion.

Earlier this week Governor Corbett asked gas companies to keep following the setback standards, even though they are no longer law. The rules say the edge of an unconventional well site must be at least 100 feet away from a streams and wetlands. The well itself was required to be at least 300 feet.

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BoomTown: How Drilling Has Changed Towanda, PA

Becky Lettenberger / NPR

Trucks drive down Towanda's main drag. Click on the image to view StateImpact Pennsylvania's new multimedia project, called "Boomtown."

StateImpact Pennsylvania’s latest project, BoomTown, documents how natural gas drilling has affected Towanda, Bradford County. Click here to watch and listen to the report.


What does a drilling boom look like?

In Towanda, Bradford County, it looks like trucks rumbling across Veterans Memorial Bridge and down Main Street. The vehicles,  hauling water, chemicals, equipment, sand and dirt more to and from natural gas drilling sites, have been a steady presence since 2008, when hydraulic fracturing began in surrounding Bradford County.

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Perilous Pathways: How Abandoned Wells Can Contribute To Methane Migration Problems

Methane is a flam­ma­ble, odor­less gas that exists within under­ground shale for­ma­tions.  Because of the porous, intertwined rock formations that many parts of Pennsylvania sit on top of, the gas can naturally seep to the surface. Methane can be dangerous when it migrates into water wells or basements.

Orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells create a natural pathway for methane to migrate from. The process can be accelerated when an active well is drilled into the same formation the abandoned well is tapped into. This occurrence — called “communication” — is extremely rare, but it can create major problems at the surface. A 30-foot geyser of gas and water that burst through the ground in Tioga County in June was likely caused by Marcellus Shale drilling near an abandoned well.

This graphic shows how methane gas can make its way from deep underground into a basement, water well or the ground.


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