Pennsylvania Pushes Tougher Fracking Regs

  • A drilling rig on a Marcellus shale well pad in Greene County, Pa. Photo: Reid Frazier

March 13, 2015

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) proposed ratcheting up several regulations for the oil and gas industry this week, showing another facet of Gov. Tom Wolf’s approach to the state’s gas industry.

After the new governor proposed a severance tax on natural gas in February, Wolf’s Acting DEP secretary John Quigley announced a broad-ranging proposal to increase regulations controlling wastewater storage, fracking near schools, noise management, and public involvement in siting of oil and gas infrastructure.

The draft rules will be discussed by the state’s Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board later this month.

The 167-pages of proposed rule changes were still sinking in with many who follow the policy debate around fracking in Pennsylvania, but the oil and gas industry does not like what it sees so far.

“Many of these proposed modifications—which we’re still reviewing in detail—appear to be duplicative and unnecessarily costly solutions in search of problems that threaten jobs,” said Marcellus Shale Coalition president Dave Spigelmyer in an emailed statement.  

But Acting DEP Secretary Quigley called the proposal “a great step forward for responsible drilling in Pennsylvania—and my definition of responsible drilling is protecting public health and the environment while enabling drilling to proceed.”

The proposed changes include:

—The Department would ban temporary fracking waste storage pits for drill waste at well sites. The rules would also increase requirements for storing fracking wastewater in centralized wastewater impoundments, large earthen ponds used as way stations for drilling waste.

—New noise management standards for drillers

—Enhanced review of fracking near schools and playgrounds

—Greater protections for groundwater and streams

The rule changes apply to unconventional oil and gas wells drilled into deep, carbon-rich formations like the Marcellus and Utica shales. With nearly 9,000 shale gas wells drilled, Pennsylvania is the second largest natural gas producer in the country. In only 10 years of active drilling, the Marcellus Shale has become the country’s most productive gas formation. 

TARGETING FRACKING WASTE

The proposals are the latest attempt by the DEP to regulate the industry. Observers said the rule’s biggest single change would be in how gas companies handle fracking wastewater. “It’s what most folks’ eyes went to right away is the elimination of waste storage pits,” says John Norbeck, Acting President and CEO of the environmental group PennFuture. 

The new rules would ban so-called frack-pits—temporary storage ponds for liquid and solid by-products of the drilling process. (Conventional drillers—those drilling at shallower depths—would still be allowed to use these pits, according to the new rules.)

Scott Perry, DEP Deputy Secretary, said the drilling industry has gradually moved away from using these pits, and no operators currently use them. 

Companies have been keeping more of their wastewater in containers at well sites. Some use centralized wastewater impoundments to store briny waste from multiple wells. But these impoundments will have to be closed down or meet tougher requirements under these new rules.

Perry said the new rules are needed because of persistent problems with them.

“These impoundments are only used by a small number of operators, but there have been compliance and pollution issues,” says DEP Deputy Scott Perry.

As recently as last year, the agency cited two companies, Range Resources and EQT, for large leaks out of these impoundments.
Perry says the new rules would apply to six companies who have 17 existing centralized impoundments, with 13 permit applications pending.

NEW STANDARDS

The new standard would require thicker liners, increased bonding requirements, and more public involvement in the siting of the impoundments.

Wastewater is a by-product of fracking, and the waste contains metals, salts, and chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. Drillers produced 1.8 billion gallons of wastewater in Pennsylvania in 2014, according to state records on the DEP web site.

Pennsylvania has experienced problems with several operators in waste storage. The mapping website FracTracker found that of 214 recorded spills in 2014, 53 were for oil and gas wastewater

There are more than 40 impoundments that meet the newer, tougher standards contained in DEP’s proposal, said Stephen Socash, Chief of the Division of Municipal and Residual Waste in the DEP's Bureau of Waste Management.

Because of this, Norbeck, of PennFuture, says the rules would be relatively easy for companies to comply with.

“None of it is revolutionary—it’s stuff companies can do today if they wanted to,” Norbeck says.

The process of re-writing the new rule began with initial meetings dating back to 2011. DEP has already received 24,000 comments on a 2013 draft of the rules. A DEP Technical Advisory Board will discuss the rules on March 20 in Harrisburg. After that, a 30-day public comment period will be held. The DEP has a deadline to finalize the rule in Spring of 2016.