Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Faults Oversight of Natural Gas Industry
New York Times | Jon Hurdle
July 23, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA — Environmental officials in Pennsylvania have failed to adequately regulate the state’s booming natural gas industry, a state report said, reflecting what critics say is weak oversight of the oil and gas industry at a time when drilling is spreading across the United States.
Pennsylvania’s auditor general, Eugene DePasquale, said Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has been unable to keep up with the workload placed on it by a proliferation of shale gas wells in the last five years, and has failed to respond adequately to many public complaints about water and air contamination resulting from gas development.
Mr. DePasquale, in the report issued this week, accused the department of failing to require most gas companies to restore drinking water supplies if they are found to have contaminated them, as required by Act 13, a 2012 state law that regulates many aspects of the natural gas industry.
Out of 15 contamination cases between 2009 and 2012, the department issued only one order for the operator to restore or replace the water supply, the auditor’s report said.
Nationwide, critics of the shale gas industry say public drinking water supplies are endangered by the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — in which millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand are pumped deep underground to break apart rock and release gas stored inside.
The Oil and Gas Accountability Project of Earthworks, a national environmental group, said in a 2012 study that six states, including Pennsylvania, had weak oversight of their oil and gas industries.
“There really is a crisis in enforcement nationwide, and in none of the states that we looked at did we find adequate oversight, particularly as the industry is expanding,” said Nadia Steinzor, the group’s eastern-region coordinator.
Ms. Steinzor said that the Earthworks study, which also covered Colorado, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Texas, found many of the same issues raised by the Pennsylvania auditor general.
In Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, is a strong supporter of the gas industry, the department encourages energy companies to reach voluntary agreements with affected homeowners, and so has weakened its own effectiveness, the auditor’s report said.
It also accused the Department of Environmental Protection of failing to communicate its findings to the public clearly and on a timely basis; of using an ineffective complaint-tracking system; and of not providing reliable assurances that all shale gas wells were inspected on a timely basis.
The department’s secretary, E. Christopher Abruzzo, rejected the report’s findings. He argued that Act 13 does not require the department to issue compliance orders to any gas company that is found to have contaminated water, but in fact has discretion to do so as needed to ensure compliance.
“D.E.P. has found that working with operators to obtain voluntary compliance with the law is often a more effective and expeditious method of restoring water supplies,” Mr. Abruzzo wrote.
Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group for the Pennsylvania gas industry, defended the department and noted that its gas regulation activities are funded by operators who pay some of the highest well fees in the country.
“It is clear that Pennsylvania’s regulatory regime is effectively meeting its objectives of protecting our environment and making certain that shale’s broad benefits are fully realized,” Mr. Creighton said in a statement.
Local environmental groups, who have long accused the department of lax oversight of the gas industry, expressed hope that the report would lead to quicker resolution of water-quality complaints from gas-drilling areas.
“Some cases are still not resolved while people wait and have to use bottled water, and wonder if taking a shower or other nonpotable uses are exposing their families to harm, without proper guidance from D.E.P. about these issues,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group. She said there had been thousands of complaints about water contamination near gas wells.
Mr. DePasquale, a former Democratic state representative, said in an interview that he had no legal authority to enforce any of the report’s 29 recommendations, but said he had begun discussions with lawmakers to clarify the provisions of Act 13 and would be meeting with editorial boards, environmental groups and business organizations to build support for his proposals.
Asked whether his report indicates that public health is being threatened by the gas industry, Mr. DePasquale said he had been unable to determine that because of the paucity of information obtained from the Department of Environmental Protection.
“What we’re saying is that we can’t fully say one way or the other because their record keeping is so poor,” he said.
The Department of Environmental Protection said it had confirmed that since 2008, when the shale gas boom began in Pennsylvania, 209 private water supplies have been “impacted” by the industry.