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DEP Releases Final Oil And Gas Rules

Keith Srakocic
AP Images
A crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site near Zelienople, Pa.

New regulations for oil and gas drilling released by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection hope to address environmental concerns by many residents throughout the Commonwealth. Before Wednesday’s revisions were announced, the state hadn’t modified drilling rules since 1984.  Recent increases in hydraulic fracturing and concerns over potential health risks prompted the DEP to begin the process of updating the laws in 2011.  David Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist with Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, explains the new statues were met with criticism from environmental advocates as well as members of the oil and gas industry.

“If you’re not making anybody happy on either side of the spectrum, then you must be doing something right,” he said.

Many environmental groups are unsatisfied with the newest rules, claiming they aren’t strict enough.  Others, such as a Dave Spieglmyer, President and CEO of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, believe the standards will be harmful to the industry. Among the new laws, the DEP is requiring changes around waste management, public resource accessibility and permit enforcement.  The permit costs alone, Spieglmyer explains, have already been increased several times since drillers arrived in the Commonwealth.

“An average gas well permit in 2008 was $100,” he said. “Now it’s $5,000.”

Since hydraulic fracturing, or, “fracking,” began in Pennsylvania, Yoxtheimer says the DEP has conducted regular air and water quality tests near well sites.  Residents filed about 200 reports claiming the drilling had impacted their resources, however, fewer than half were found to be a result of the industry’s activities. The most common impact of fracking, according to Yoxtheimer, is in respect to methane migration, which happens when methane leaks from a shallow casing into aquifers and wells. Workers are instructed to seal off these leaks to prevent contamination, says Yoxtheimer.

While he doesn’t see an easy solution to the controversy surrounding fracking, Yoxthemier recognizes the balance the state will likely need to find.

“Unless you’re willing to go off the gride, you’re using their product,” he said. “It’s a balance to maximize the benefit and minimize the risk.”

Spieglmyer, meanwhile, would like to see a cost-benefit analysis accompany the new regulations. He cited that Pennsylvania currently has its lowest natural gas prices since the mid-90s and fears the rules could further increase costs to the industry and risk its sustainability.  He denounced what he called myths of drilling companies, saying most of them were local workers with an environmental conscious.

“I get the fact that it needs to be done in an environmental and responsible fashion.  Nearly every member around our board table thinks the same way.”

As for the implementation of renewable resources, both Spieglmyer and Yoxtheimer expressed their hope for an increase in solar and wind power throughout the state, but recognized the need for what they called a “baseline fuel.”  With the Marcellus Shale resources, Spieglmyer suggests that natural gas would fit this need.  He also added that natural gas is useful in the production of necessary items such as medication.

Based on the research and testing done by the DEP, Yoxthemier explains that there can be detectable impacts to water and air quality near drilling sites.  This can manifest in the form of toxic fluids and brine on the surface near recently fractured wells. He says these new regulations will try to decrease the frequency of the impact on the public.  

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm
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