Sunday, January 31, 2010

PA Governor wants more well inspectors and tougher regs

On Thursday, January 28, Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell announced that his state would step up actions to protect residents and the environment from the impact of increased natural gas exploration. He's directing the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to hire 68 new well inspectors to join the 100 or so currently on staff. Funding for the new positions, says Rendell, will come from money generated by new, higher permitting fees that were instituted just last year.

But that's not all. Rendell wants to see stronger oil and gas regulations, and last Thursday he listed a few. Specifically, he said the new regulations will: raise standards for well casings and pipes; require drilling companies to restore or replace water supplies they pollute; require well operators to inspect every existing well quarterly and report the results of those inspections to DEP; and require lower well pressures.  

Why the sudden flurry of administrative activity? It seems that interest in Marcellus Shale is growing by leaps and bounds. The folks in the gas industry have told Rendell that they expect to apply for 5,200 permits this year - nearly three times the number of permits the state issued in all of 2009.

The other reason is that PA needs more well inspectors. Last year DEP could only conduct a bit over 14,500 drill site inspections, and they've got well over 100,000 active wells in the state. Those inspections resulted in nearly 680 enforcement actions against drillers for violations. 

In early January the DEP fined Pennsylvania-based Atlas Resources for violations at 13 wells, including spills of fracturing fluids and other contaminants onto the ground around the sites. These spills are significant because they happened repeatedly during what has been characterized as “routine transfer of fluids”. Later in the month DEP fined M.R. Dirt, a company that removes waste from drilling sites, $6,000 for spilling more than seven tons of drilling dirt along a public road. 

Before that, in December the DEP fined Chesapeake and Schlumberger or hydrochloric acid spills. In November they fined Cabot Oil and Gas for a series of spills, including a fracturing fluid spill. And the month before that, DEP fined Texas-based Range Resources $23,500 for spilling nearly 5,000 gallons of wastewater, including hydraulic fracturing fluids, into a tributary of Cross Creek Lake, a protected watershed near Pittsburgh.

The new draft regulations were developed through open meetings with industry experts and are open for public comment. You can read the proposed rules here.

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