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Pennsylvania's DEP chief seeking gas pipeline strategy

| Sunday, March 29, 2015, 5:09 p.m.

HARRISBURG — A “spiderweb” of new natural gas pipelines will be built across Pennsylvania during the next decade, and the state's top environmental official wants to develop a strategy for minimizing the impact on the environment.

John Quigley, secretary-designate of the Department of Environmental Protection, is creating a task force with members drawn from the industry, local governments and conservation groups to develop voluntary guidelines for locating 25,000 miles of gathering pipelines, which move gas from wells to transmission lines, and several thousand miles of larger interstate pipelines.

The impact of this construction will be felt in every county - even areas unfamiliar with this scale of development, Quigley told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.

“We need to get ahead of it,” he said.

Pennsylvania lacks authority to regulate the siting of pipelines, so Quigley wants voluntary cooperation.

An agreement can mean less disruption of the environment and give pipeline companies a clear and predictable direction during the building of pipelines, Quigley said.

He negotiated a similar policy setting voluntary standards for siting wind power facilities a decade ago.

Along with the decline in natural gas prices during the past year are reports of fewer drilling rigs operating in Pennsylvania.

Republican senators cited this drop when questioning why DEP wants to hire 50 new employees to enforce state regulation of gas and oil drilling. Gov. Tom Wolf's proposed state budget would earmark $10 million in revenue from a proposed severance tax on natural gas production to hire inspectors and other personnel for DEP's oil and gas division.

While there are fewer drilling rigs, more wells are being drilled — 1,372 in 2014 compared to 1,207 in 2013, Quigley said. That is due to increased productivity and efficiency on the part of gas drillers.

He said DEP needs to increase the number of well inspections — even of those on the same well pad.

The agency currently inspects a well twice during its active period, but needs to increase that frequency to up to six times, Mr. Quigley said.

DEP budget support About 51 percent of DEP's annual budget comes from fees, fines and penalties paid by industries and others subject to the environmental regulations that the department enforces, Quigley said.

That leaves 21 percent of the budget based on the taxpayer-supported general fund and 28 percent from federal funds for programs such as abandoned mine land reclamation and nuclear safety.

DEP's reliance on fee and fine revenue has been overshadowed by the recent experience of its sister agency. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has increasingly been supported in recent years by revenue from the separate oil and gas fund, which is based on payments for oil and gas drilling on public lands.

Wolf wants to reverse that trend by drawing an additional $22 million from the General Fund to support DCNR operations.

Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers.

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