Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues
We hear frequently about the need to control methane and other dangerous pollutants from natural gas extraction in the Marcellus shale, known as the “unconventional” gas industry. These large and deep wells hold the significant potential to release pollutants when things go wrong, but the less talked about “conventional gas” industry is just as central to the Commonwealth’s pollution problems. Legislators’ efforts to pretend conventional wells are just the cleaner, smaller cousins of unconventional gas by rolling back environmental protections are dangerous to our communities and based on a false assessment of the industry.
There are over 7,000 large unconventional wells in Pennsylvania, but more than 70,000, smaller, and shallower conventional wells, along with more than 300,000 orphaned and abandoned wells from more than a century of conventional drilling. When it comes to potential pollution, these wells make up for in numbers what they lack in size.
Because there are many more operators drilling many more wells, it can be challenging to regulate the conventional oil and gas industry, but this isn’t a problem we can ignore simply because it is difficult to track. Some of these wells use hydraulic fracturing (fracking) just like their bigger cousins, and many of them are located near homes, schools, streams, parks, and other particularly sensitive areas.
In spite of this, there are forces in the state Legislature that are trying to roll back environmental protections related to these wells. If successful, their plans would put clean air and pure water in jeopardy. House Bill 2154, which could be voted on this week in the State Senate, essentially sets the requirements on these sources to the levels they were in 1984, rejecting modern advances in technology and instead, allowing these operators to use decades old techniques that pollute more.
Regulating these sources is hard enough already, but House Bill 2154 would take away important tools the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection uses to protect communities. For example, this bill would require DEP to issue warnings in certain cases instead of notices of violation. That is basically telling operators that in many cases, they have a free pass for their first violation, which is potentially dangerous for citizens living in close proximity to these wells. Industry accountability should be prioritized.
This bill also eviscerates bonding requirements. Normally, the DEP requires operators to provide bonds that will fund the state to plug wells if an operator goes out of business or otherwise defaults on its obligations. If this bonding requirement isn’t high enough to accomplish the task, we either add to the number of abandoned wells polluting our state or Pennsylvania taxpayers end up paying what the company should have. Instead of ensuring adequate bonding, this bill sets the cost of a bond at $2,500 per well, or a $25,000 “blanket bond” to cover the entirety of an operator’s wells, no matter how many they have. That isn’t nearly enough to properly close the wells, so the bill is essentially offering conventional drillers free insurance that Pennsylvania taxpayers would be forced to subsidize.
This bill not only takes power from the DEP, it also hurts land owners. Once a well is proposed, it gives DEP or the land owners just 15 days to raise objections. For land owners, that just isn’t long enough to learn about a well, hire a qualified expert to review the proposal, then research and develop comments. Instead, this almost guarantees objections will be rushed and not fully developed. The DEP typically gives the public at least 30 days to comment on its actions and in complex cases routinely gives much longer. It’s shocking that the legislature is willing to cut off the public’s voice on such an important impact to their land, water, and community.
HB 2154 also attempts to take the power away from municipalities to use their zoning authority to protect their citizens. The PA Supreme Court upheld this right in 2013, finding that the Environmental Rights Amendment of our state Constitution requires the government, including municipalities, to act as a trustee of the our natural resources. Removing this power means not just more pollution, but more pollution in our communities where we live, work, and learn, say nothing of being unconstitutional
While these reasons alone are enough to reject HB 2154, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. This bill is bad for all Pennsylvanians. It’s shocking that after a century of grappling with the issues brought on by the fossil fuel industry, that elected officials in 2018 would be trying to give communities the tools from 1984 to defend and protect themselves Legislators should resoundingly reject this archaic bill.