HARRISBURG — State House and Senate committees voted Wednesday to advance bills that would separate environmental regulations for the traditional drilling industry from rules designed for shale gas development.
The identical bills, House Bill 2350 and Senate Bill 1378, moved forward with amendments to clarify that both proposed and existing regulations that apply to oil and gas wells should be split by the state‘s environmental rulemaking board to address the two industries separately.
The bills' sponsors, Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint, and Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said the proposed legislation is an effort to tailor rules to different industries, not to lessen environmental standards on conventional wells.
Mr. Scarnati said Pennsylvania's 2012 update to its drilling law, known as Act 13, inadvertently applied some rules meant for the large unconventional drilling companies that are extracting gas from the Marcellus Shale to "mom and pop businesses" that operate shallow conventional wells.
"Clearly, the legislative intent was not to include conventional drilling and wells into this," he said.
Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, said the two industries are substantially different in terms of water use, surface disturbance, production volumes, drilling depth and other factors. "This isn't comparing apples to oranges," he said. "This is comparing apples to elephants."
Opponents of the bills say the split could allow conventional operators to escape stricter standards that are necessary for all forms of oil and gas extraction.
"The conventional gas industry also poses substantial environmental problems," said Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware. He said the conventional industry's well construction practices do not meet the unconventional industry's modern standards. They "put many more holes in the ground per acre than unconventional wells do," and their brine disposal practices have been "problematic."
"There is some concern that they lack regulation and simply don't want to be regulated," he said.
Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, countered that conventional drilling companies may be fined by regulators for minor issues like "having a glove on the ground" or an improper font size on a sign.
"This is the ridiculousness of some of the people on the ground who are trying to regulate conventional wells the same as Marcellus," she said. "Our people are already regulated."
The Senate Environmental Resources and Energy committee voted 7-4 to advance the bill, while the House Environmental Resources and Energy committee approved its version of the bill 22-3.
The amended bills also cut a phrase that would have defined a conventional well based on its geological target "irrespective of technology or design." Environmental groups feared that would allow companies to use the tools of the unconventional industry, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, without having to follow the stronger regulations that apply to shale gas wells.
Gov. Tom Corbett's energy executive Patrick Henderson said the administration does not oppose the bills because they do not reduce environmental standards.
"I think it is fair to recognize that there are two, in many respects, separate industries," he said. "Some standards ought to apply and do apply to both. And that can be addressed."
Laura Legere: firstname.lastname@example.org.