New DEP rules for shallow oil and gas wells draw industry ire

HARRISBURG — The conventional oil and gas industry’s frustrations with proposed new environmental regulations boiled up at a Department of Environmental Protection advisory board meeting on Thursday, where representatives of the Pennsylvania’s legacy drilling industry questioned whether new rules should apply to them now or even at all.

Leaders of several industry trade groups who sit on the advisory board or addressed it Thursday said proposed rules for limiting surface impacts from conventional oil and gas operations should be withdrawn and the 4-year-old process of drafting them should start again to address the specific situation of small operators in the state’s traditional, shallow drilling industry.

“There is little or no environmental benefit that will be obtained from these draft final regulations to justify the loss of jobs and the crippling of a historic industry,” said Paul Hart, who gave comments on behalf of the trade group Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association at the inaugural meeting of the DEP’s Conventional Oil and Gas Advisory Committee.

The DEP’s proposed rules will affect the large-scale operations conducted by companies drawing gas from the Marcellus and Utica shales and the generally smaller, shallower operations of the state’s traditional industry. A budget bill passed by the General Assembly last year directed regulators to split the rules in two, so the new proposals contain separate standards for the unconventional and conventional industries.

DEP officials pushed back at the meeting against suggestions that the conventional industry has not caused environmental harm.

“Certainly, conventional operations are not environmentally benign,” the DEP’s deputy secretary for oil and gas management, Scott Perry, said, using as an example cases where conventional well operations have intersected with nearby abandoned wells, causing damage to water and other resources.

The DEP released a revised draft of wide-ranging regulatory changes this month after considering suggestions submitted by citizens, industry representatives and environmental groups. Like shale industry representatives, conventional oil and gas operators said most of their comments on earlier drafts of the proposed regulations appeared to have been ignored by regulators.

Kurt Klapkowski, director of the DEP’s bureau of oil and gas planning and program management, said the agency had to consider advice from commenters with a wide variety of opinions. Some of the agency’s decisions in the industry’s favor are evident in what didn’t change between the drafts. For example, the DEP decided it is still appropriate for conventional operators to use pits and spread waste brine on roads for dust and ice control, despite substantial numbers of public comments calling for an end to those practices, he said.

Mark Cline, a committee member and the president of the Pennsylvania Independent Petroleum Producers, suggested that comments from operators who know the industry best should be given greater weight. “Those are comments coming from people who don’t really have a clue what they’re talking about,” he said.

The newly created advisory committee is made up of five technical experts who represent the oil and gas and coal industries and four nonvoting members from public forest agencies and municipalities, who represent the public interest.

Mr. Hart said that since the committee is primarily focused on technical issues, the industry is concerned “that the nonvoting members may significantly distract from the technical discussions.”

Meanwhile, a group of mothers and their children from the Moms Clean Air Force, an environmental advocacy group, urged the department to “strictly regulate drilling” and maintain public representation on the DEP’s oil and gas advisory boards.

“Moms are asking for the administration to continue to allow public interests to sit at the table while developing natural gas regulations,” said Trisha Sheehan, the group’s regional field manager.

The DEP will open an additional 30-day period for written public comment on the proposed regulations that is scheduled to begin on April 4.

Laura Legere:

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