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Drilling rules move closer to reality

| Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, 2:30 p.m.

Environmentalists and drillers are gearing up for a fight over how best to protect rivers and drinking water as the state implements the biggest change to its oil and gas laws in 30 years.

The state Department of Environmental Protection released 74 pages of proposed regulations on Tuesday aimed at shielding the state's drinking wells and rivers from the Marcellus shale drilling industry.

“The most important provisions are those that are designed to improve the protection of water quality,” said David Hess, DEP secretary under former Gov. Tom Ridge and a Harrisburg lobbyist whose clients include environmental groups.

The regulations would ban permanent storage of hydraulic fracturing fluid in open pits and require drillers to notify state agencies if they plan to drill near a scenic river, among other rules, according to a summary.

The rules are the first to be issued under the 2012 Oil and Gas Act, said DEP spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz. They also aim to protect the state's $1 billion in industries tied to natural resources, the DEP said.

“This puts Pennsylvania pretty far ahead of other states in environmental protection measures,” Hess said.

But not far enough, some say.

Among the concerns raised by environmental groups, a proposed rule against open-air storage pits doesn't ban them outright and another governing abandoned wells doesn't go far enough.

“There are many things that are missing from the rules, and we're certainly intending to bring them up during the public comment period,” said Myron Arnowitt, state director of Clean Water Action.

The public comment period will last 60 days, rather than the normal 30 days, and will include six public hearings, the DEP said. At issue are the two main areas of contention in the 5-year-old Marcellus shale boom: water and jobs.

Rivers define the state — from the Delaware to the Chesapeake-feeding Susquehanna to the headwaters of the Ohio — and nearly half of the state's 12.8 million people get their water from wells that the state doesn't regulate, according to the DEP.

But unemployment remains stubbornly high, stuck at 7.5 percent for the last three months. The Marcellus shale gas industry employs more than 20,000 people directly, with nearly 200,000 people working in ancillary industries in the state, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

The fracking industry held its fire on Tuesday. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an energy industry group, didn't identify any problems with the proposed regulations because they're still reviewing them, a spokesman said. But their silence won't last.

“During the public comment period, the MSC's member companies will be actively engaged to ensure that the commonwealth's natural resources are protected through common sense and workable regulations that promote continued shale development,” said coalition spokesman Steve Forde. “Striking this balance is critical to making certain that Pennsylvania continues to get this historic opportunity right.”

Range Resources and Consol Energy did not respond to requests for comment. EQT Corp. spokeswoman Linda Robertson said it is “premature” to comment.

The regulations were approved by the Environmental Quality Board, a 20-member board made up of the heads of 11 state agencies, a five-member Citizens Advisory Council and members of the state House and Senate. Reviews by the state Attorney General and General Counsel come next, followed by the public comment period and hearings.

The rules could make drillers responsible for their predecessors. State officials estimate that more than 150 years of drilling left the state with 180,000 abandoned wells, and they don't know where most of them are. If a horizontal well and high-pressure fracking knock loose an improperly sealed well head, officials fear it could create an open pipe to vent unlocked methane into the air.

The regulations would force drillers to locate and monitor abandoned wells within 1,000 feet of a proposed well site. They would have to use the DEP's database, check farm maps and give questionnaires to landowners.

That requirement is “relatively novel among states,” said John Walliser, vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

The regulations would ban permanent fluid storage in an open pit ­— a large hole with an impermeable liner between the waste and soil ­— though not temporary storage.

“There have been too many problems with these pits. They can leak. They can overflow,” Arnowitt said.

Arnowitt cited a settlement last month between the federal Environmental Protection Agency and XTO Energy Inc. over fracking wastewater discharged from XTO's Lycoming County facility. The settlement included a ban on open pit storage.

Drillers have long maintained that fracking is safe. A recent yearlong Department of Energy study at a Greene County drill site by the South Park-based National Energy Technology Laboratory found no contamination seeped past thousands of feet of rock from the bottom of the well into ground water.

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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