(Un)Conventional Thinking

Davitt Woodwell
Pennsylvania Environmental Council

The Pennsylvania General Assembly today allowed an important step forward in managing unconventional shale gas development in the Commonwealth. By not upending the six-year process that led to amendments of the Oil and Gas Act for unconventional operators, legislators have allowed implementation of their own law to move forward and, finally, given Pennsylvanians a drilling program rooted in the twenty-first century.

This process began even before Governor Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Committee that, in 2011, recommended many of the provisions that were then embedded in Act 13 of 2012 and, eventually, in these new regulations. Did it take too long? Yes. Are we done? No.

Still at issue are questions about how “conventional” drilling operations will be regulated. “Conventional” drilling generally refers to operations that drill vertically into a reservoir of gas. The true conventional operations do not use fracking or horizontal drilling like unconventional drillers, except they can under Pennsylvania law. The General Assembly chose to define conventional drilling by depth of operations, not by the technology used to develop the well. This means there is a loophole in the definition of conventional if the well is drilled to a point above the Elk Sandstone formation. It does not make sense.

But now, as DEP likely goes forward with a set of standards for Act 13 defined conventional operators, it is incumbent upon the agency to recognize that different practices bring different risks and may call for differing rules. This is an approach that the General Assembly should recognize and support – a vertical well is not the same as a fracked vertical well is not the same as a horizontally drilled and fracked well.

Another critical issue on the table is the question of what legacy will be left to Pennsylvanians when the wells in play today end their production lives, perhaps decades from now. Current law in Pennsylvania sets bonding requirements that are far below the level needed to appropriately close those wells if the eventual owner of the well defaults. Does that happen? There are currently at least 180,000 orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells in the state.

The General Assembly did the right thing in allowing the unconventional regulations to move forward. As PEC has said for several years, it is not all that we wanted, but it makes important strides in protecting the environment and allowing, for those operators who want to, to go even further in improving their practices. Now it is time to work on a similar set of rules for the conventional drillers, as defined in Act 13, differentiated by practices used, and to address the questions of what legacies – even beyond oil and gas – we will leave for the next generations.