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Clamor increasing to regulate Marcellus shale gas drilling

| Monday, May 16, 2011

State Rep. Garth Everett gets e-mails about Marcellus shale legislation every day lately. As of last week, his staff had counted 68 bills related to gas drilling filed in Harrisburg in fewer than five months.

After years of relative inaction on the state's Marcellus shale gas boom, state lawmakers say they might be on the verge of passing industry reforms and regulations.

Some legislative leaders are waiting on this summer's report from Gov. Tom Corbett's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission. But key committee chairs agree the state needs to beef up its environmental rules, especially to protect water.

Three environmental groups issued policy recommendations in the past two weeks, suggesting broader buffer zones around drilling sites and larger bond requirements to insure for damages. The Sierra Club's Pennsylvania chapter says it is getting ready to release a "Landowners' Bill of Rights."

The proposal, still being written, will demand public announcements of pending drilling permits and easier public access to view those permits, said Thomas Au, the group's conservation chair and water quality committee co-chair. It also will insist on more protections for the thousands of property owners who don't own mineral rights to their land and now have no say over drilling on their property, he added.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation released a joint report last week, and PennEnvironment released recommendations May 5. They share suggestions that legislators say are popular in Harrisburg:

• Shale wells should be at least 500 feet from buildings, drinking-water wells and high-quality waterways, up from the 200 feet permitted now.

• Drillers should pay to test water wells within 2,500 feet of gas wells before drilling, and pay for new water supplies if those wells sour within a year.

• Drillers should have to put up more than a single $25,000 bond for their wells statewide, guaranteeing money is there to pay for damage to roads and the environment, and to cap wells when they dry up.

All three groups released reports with similar recommendations in past years, but with little legislative success. Lawmakers hesitated last year because of the state budget impasse, the imminent departure of Gov. Ed Rendell and the General Assembly election, said John Walliser, vice president of legal and governmental affairs at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

"But I do think this is going to get a lot more traction than it did last session. I think there was a lot of concern from the Legislature that they wanted to get more information and a better understanding of what's going on here," said Walliser, whose group is part of Corbett's commission. "I think there's a recognition now that changes do need to be made."

Industry braces

Industry officials expect changes from Harrisburg this year and, while some could be useful, not all are imperative, said Dave Spigelmeyer, vice president of government relations for Chesapeake Energy.

For example, most drillers have started water well testing out to 2,500 feet around their shale gas wells, he said.

"You don't necessarily have to have laws in place to have the industry perform," he said. "We do things not only to protect the public but to protect the industry as well."

The state's Oil and Gas Act needs to be updated because it was not written to deal with the widespread, deep drilling that has come with the Marcellus shale, said Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Venango County, chair of the Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee. She said ensuring safe disposal of drilling wastewater is her top priority.

Widespread feeling

Everett, R-Lycoming County, a member of the House Environmental Resources & Energy Committee, said he supports the environmental groups' push for better well water protection. He's also considering bigger buffer zones and said the Department of Environmental Protection should be able to hit offending drillers with harsher punishments.

"Consensus over the last year has really been building," said Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne County, the minority chair on White's committee. "I really sense a great deal of momentum."

But several Republican leaders want to wait. Corbett's commission has until July 22 to release its recommendations, and its members are the experts, said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Republican leadership.

"We do fully support strong regulations on the industry. Definitely strict enforcement," Miskin said. "But, in order to do something, let's see what (commissioner members) have to say first. They're hearing from the industry, they're hearing from outsiders, they're hearing from concerned people."

The governor's commission, chaired by Lt. Gov. James Cawley, has 30 members, including leaders of seven state agencies such as the DEP. Members are working with representatives of the industry, environmental groups, business groups and local governments.

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