PEC Submits Marcellus Shale Legislative Proposal

Harrisburg – Two major environmental organizations in Pennsylvania have joined forces in submitting a legislative proposal to the Corbett administration and state lawmakers that is designed to help ensure safe and responsible Marcellus Shale drilling and gas extraction in Pennsylvania.

This proposal, submitted earlier today by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) provides a detailed prescription of amendments that must be made to the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act so that state law can effectively regulate and manage deep shale and unconventional drilling techniques that were never contemplated when the law was enacted. Called the Marcellus Shale Amendments to the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act, the proposal was provided to Governor Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Commission and members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly in separate meetings earlier today.

The proposed amendments are based on research from both organizations, including the findings of a PEC report issued last year called “Developing the Marcellus Shale” which outline a series of recommendations for improving oversight and management of unconventional shale gas development. These amendments are aimed at restoring public confidence in the industry’s ability and commitment to responsible drilling and environmental compliance. The proposal includes 50 specific amendments to the Act which reform the permit process to allow for greater stakeholder input and set clear environmental protection standards for the hydraulic fracturing process and the infrastructure that should be required for shale gas extraction.

“The Marcellus Shale gas play represents a once-in-a-generation challenge and opportunity for Pennsylvania,” said PEC president and chief executive officer Paul M. King. “We have one chance to get it right and these amendments are the way to do that. It’s our sincere hope that the General Assembly passes these amendments into law for the good of the Pennsylvania environment and economy.”

”The regulations and oversight governing this industry have not kept up with the technology for extraction,” said Matt Ehrhart, Executive Director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania office. “Updating Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Act is a critical step in enabling the Commonwealth to manage Marcellus extraction in a fashion that protects our natural resources and our communities.”

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are proposing that the process for obtaining a drilling permit be split into two phases that require enhanced collection and review of site-specific data prior to approval. They each regard the current process as insufficient since well sites are often remote and the approval timeframe prescribed by law is very short.

The proposal also calls for a number of tighter restrictions in the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act, which is the central piece of legislation regulating the extraction of natural gas in Pennsylvania. It exists to promote the development Pennsylvania’s oil and natural gas resources without sacrificing the health, safety, environment and property of the citizens of Pennsylvania. Additionally, it is the authorizing legislation giving the Department of Environmental Protection regulatory power to protect people and property in areas affected by oil and gas development, and to protect “natural resources, environmental rights and values” in accordance with the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The origins of the Oil and Gas Act date back to 1874, but even the most recent amendments to the law were enacted long before the Marcellus Shale gas play was discovered and the hydraulic fracturing extraction method was utilized in Pennsylvania.

A number of accidents at Marcellus Shale drill rigs in recent months have brought into focus the potential for adverse impacts on public health and the environment whether from failures of technology, adequate controls, or human error. Therefore it is necessary to set greater controls in the law itself, and require the deployment of best management practices to ensure sufficient protections are in place.

Additionally, the proposal calls for regional planning to avoid any potential adverse impacts to sensitive public or natural resources at the local level. Such planning should also allow for well site infrastructure to be consolidated so as to minimize its impact on the environment and roadways and to reduce the potential for cumulative impacts. However this planning requirement is not included in the proposed amendments to state law but rather is encouraged at the local level by industry and local government officials.

Among the specific changes called for in this proposal are the following recommendations:

  • Split the current permitting process into two phases to allow for more public review and comment and to take the cumulative impacts of drilling on communities;
  • Increasing the buffer distances between well operations and nearby streams and waterways, including a prohibition against drilling in floodplains to safeguard against pollution risks;
  • Requiring on-site inspections of each new well site by the Department of Environmental Protection at several intervals in the well development process;
  • Increasing bonding amounts to cover the true cost of development, production and closure through the life-cycle of a well;
  • Requiring the industry to share pipelines and other facilities needed for the development and production of natural gas in order to minimize the surface impacts;
  • Establish a set of permit decision rules designed to minimize or eliminate adverse environmental impacts;
  • Increased capacity and engagement at a county level for planning, permit review, and inspection of Marcellus shale development.