Members representing public interest to remain on oil and gas board

Drilling industry trade group opposed adding the members to advisory board

HARRISBURG — Researchers, environmentalists and community representatives will remain as nonvoting members on an oil and gas advisory board to the Department of Environmental Protection despite protests from a drilling industry trade organization that the extra voices do not belong on a board designed to provide technical advice to regulators.

DEP attorneys said Thursday that the agency has the legal authority to expand the board’s nonvoting membership, which saved the five voting members of the board — engineers, geologists or experienced drillers — from having to decide whether their colleagues should go or stay.

The issue has caused a ruckus in recent weeks after the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group, criticized Gov. Tom Wolf's administration for changing the board’s makeup and adding nonvoting public interest positions that are not called for under the oil and gas law that established the board.

PIOGA wrote to the voting members of the Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board, or “TAB,” on April 10 urging them to vote down changes to their bylaws that expand the membership.

“Your oaths of office require you to act in accordance with law, and the law concerning TAB’s composition and scope is clear — and it does not provide for the appointment of additional ‘members,’ whether voting or non-voting, for any purpose, no matter how laudable,” PIOGA’s general counsel Kevin Moody wrote.

Environmental groups have seized on the statements and rallied their supporters to demand greater public participation in crafting oil and gas rules.

In public comments during the meeting, Matt Stepp, director of policy for the environmental group PennFuture, characterized the industry as “asking the board and DEP to discount the comments of citizens of the Commonwealth on these revisions,” which he called “an astonishing and unfortunate request.”

DEP attorney Elizabeth Nolan said that the law sets a minimum number of board members with specific expertise, but it does not prohibit DEP from adding members with other areas of interest or expertise in oil and gas development.

The Wolf administration has said the additional members increase transparency and public involvement in the creation of oil and gas policies and rules.

The board revised its bylaws on Thursday to call the nonvoting members “advisers” and to strike a phrase that described them as representatives of the public interest, but then tabled those changes so they would not have to vote on the composition of the board or get in the middle of a legal disagreement over the board’s makeup.

Mr. Moody said in an email after the meeting that DEP’s legal position would imply that DEP has the authority to expand or restrict provisions in the law “based upon the agency’s view of ‘what is best or better’ than what the General Assembly has decided.” PIOGA disagrees with that position, he said.

The trade group is continuing to consider legal options for addressing its disagreements with DEP’s proposed revisions to the state’s oil and gas regulations and its process of developing them, but PIOGA does not intend to initiate legal action based solely on the issues with the advisory board, Mr. Moody said.

Laura Legere:

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