Since the onset of the fracking boom nearly a decade ago, the oil and gas industry has fought to prevent effective state oversight of its Pennsylvania operations. The Marcellus Shale Coalition’s (MSC) current lawsuit to block updated regulations (Chapter 78A) for shale wells is a clear signal that industry has no plans to change its usual, harmful tune.
With state plans in development to cut oil and gas methane pollution, as well as anti-environmental bills in the legislature, Pennsylvanians can only hope that Governor Wolf and legislative leaders have finally learned their lesson: always put the public interest first, and don’t believe industry’s false promises.
That lesson has been a long time coming.
In early October, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) finalized updated Chapter 78A rules for unconventional shale operations. They were over five years in the making, the result of 12 public hearings; nearly 30,000 comments by the public, policymakers, industry, and advocates; debate in three sessions of the General Assembly; and review by several state regulatory commissions and the Attorney General.
The Commonwealth Court is currently reviewing MSC’s lawsuit, which it will hopefully dismiss on the grounds that there’s no evidence of harm. Yet even if that happens and the shale rules are successfully implemented, the public will only have received half of the protections they should.
Pennsylvanians were supposed to also get updated rules for conventional operations (i.e., those drilled in formations other than shale). Conventional wells currently make up 90% of oil and gas wells classified as active in Pennsylvania, and accounted for nearly 40% of all new wells drilled in Pennsylvania in 2014.
But back in June the legislature blew a hole in the democratic process by passing Act 52, which killed Chapter 78, the distinct package of regulations for conventional drillers. This despite the fact that regulations for conventional oil and gas production had been subject to the same intensive development, public participation, and vetting as the Chapter 78A rules.
When Governor Wolf signed Act 52 into law, it was widely portrayed as a necessary compromise. By giving in to the oil and gas industry’s and its legislative proponents’ demand to kill modern regulations for conventional oil and gas wells, the quid quo pro was understood to be their acceptance of updated regulations for shale wells. But attempts to block Chapter 78A have continued, from MSC to lawmakers who tried to amend a horse racing bill in order to gut key provisions.
To be clear, the final Chapter 78A rules do not go far enough to safeguard the environment and health. Earthworks and partners statewide worked hard to get more, and will continue to push DEP to fill the gaps. But the final rules are a critical step forward in how drillers manage polluting oil and gas waste, replace drinking water supplies they’ve contaminated, avoid drilling through old oil and gas wells, and obtain permits for drilling near parks and schools.
It was folly for Governor Wolf to believe that the oil and gas industry would do what it said. In statements to media, MSC made the same, tired arguments against regulation: it’s unfair to drillers and too expensive to implement.
Such complaining from a multi-billion dollar industry is a shameful affront to the many Pennsylvanians forced to live with the true costs of oil and gas development.
According to recent research by the Clean Air Task Force, air pollution from oil and gas operations elevates cancer risk in eight Pennsylvania counties and causes over 30,000 summertime asthma attacks in children. DEP confirms that to date, nearly 300 private water supplies have been damaged by oil and gas activities—with many more cases awaiting investigation. Landowners who once welcomed drilling are now embattled with operators refusing to pay promised royalties.
In the coming months, we’re sure to see more industry resistance to sensible and necessary public oversight, in particular DEP’s plans to cut methane pollution.
In 2014, operators reported wasting nearly 100,000 metric tons of methane—enough natural gas to heat nearly 65,000 Pennsylvania homes. Reducing such pollution is necessary to prevent the respiratory distress, sore throats, headaches, and other health problems caused by the toxic pollutants released along with methane. It would also help reduce the climate impact of the oil and gas industry, since methane is a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years.
Despite these benefits, and despite the fact that state methane control rules have already been implemented in Colorado with industry cooperation and proposed in other states, Pennsylvania operators have already expressed opposition. They insist regulation isn’t necessary because they’ll take action voluntarily—even though they refuse to commit to doing so in a meaningful way.
Policymaking is often likened to making sausage, a messy process in which different viewpoints are combined and seasoned with compromise. MSC’s Chapter 78a lawsuit reveals that the oil and gas industry cannot be trusted to accept that process. After years of severe oil and gas impacts on air, water, and health, Pennsylvanians deserve a legislature and a Governor who understand this fact–and will act to protect the public they were elected to serve.