Analysis: Penn. Hydraulic Fracturing Program Well-Managed

A targeted review of the Pennsylvania program regulating the hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells has been completed by a multi-stakeholder group, which has concluded that the program is, over all, well-managed, professional and meeting its program objectives.

The State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER), a non-profit organization that conducts voluntary state reviews of oil and natural gas environmental regulations, appointed the three-person team that conducted the study. The review team, appointed in July 2010, consisted of three members and four observers representing environmental groups, state regulators, the oil and gas industry and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Twenty-three additional people attended the review.

"The review team found that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has a well-managed program," said Lori Wrotenbery, who served as chairman of the review team. "In fact, we believe several aspects of the Department of Environmental Protection and its operations merit special recognition."

The Pennsylvania hydraulic fracturing regulatory program was singled out for its operations in the areas of comprehensive water planning; baseline water sampling and water studies; Prevention, Preparedness and Contingency planning; waste identification, tracking and reporting; and increasing staffing levels.

The state's comprehensive water planning process includes requiring water management plans to identify where water would be withdrawn and the volumes of withdrawal. The inquiry ensures that water quality standards are maintained and protected. By law, DEP cannot issue permits for an activity that will violate the laws it administers. Because large withdrawals of surface water can, individually or cumulatively, impact water quality, DEP must assure that excessive withdrawals do not occur. DEP follow water withdrawal guidance promulgated by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to ensure uniform statewide evaluation. The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) also has a role in evaluating impacts within that river basin. The DRBC is currently promulgating regulations to address Marcellus shale well drilling within its jurisdiction.

The Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act includes a provision that an oil and gas well operator is presumed to be responsible for pollution of a water supply if it occurs within six months of drilling and is within 1,000 feet of the well. One of the defenses against this presumption is a pre-drilling survey that documents baseline water quality. Proposed changes to the regulations will require results of such testing to be provided to the landowner and to DEP.

STRONGER noted that Pennsylvania state regulations require operators to identify potential risks and plan for the possibility of an accident occurring at the well site through a Prevention, Preparedness and Contingency Plan (PPC). This plan also requires operators to list the chemicals or additives utilized and the different wastes generated during hydraulic fracturing. The PPC plan includes Material Safety Data Sheets, cleanup procedures, toxicological data and waste chemical characteristics. PPC plans must be available at the well site and must be submitted to DEP upon request. New operators also must provide the state's Bureau of Oil and Gas Management (BOGM) a copy of their PPC plans prior to permit issuance.

The DEP Bureau of Waste Management also provides a reporting mechanism for generators of waste hydraulic fracturing fluids through its use of its Form 26R, Chemical Analysis of Residual Waste, Annual Report by the Generator. This form was recently modified to incorporate a comprehensive list of required analytical parameters for wastewater produced from the drilling, completion and production of Marcellus or other gas wells.

Additionally, DEP has increased the size of its permitting, compliance and enforcement staff than to an increase in permit fees enacted in 2009. BOGM also added 37 oil and gas staff in 2009 and opened a new office in Williamsport to serve the needs of the north central region that will continue to see increased Marcellus shale activity. BOGM also will hire additional staff this year and open an office in Scranton to oversee oil and gas drilling in the northeast Pennsylvania.

The review team has made recommendations to the Department of Environmental Protection baseline surveys, casing and cementing plans, availability of chemical information, notification of hydraulic fracturing operations, and pit construction.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Quality Board adopted a Proposed Rulemaking requiring that operators maintain a cement job log to document the actual procedures and specifications of the cementing operation. The team recommended that DEP finalize its Proposed Rulemaking in a manner that provides at least the levels of protection that were presented by the BOGM during the review.
The review team also recommended that the state consider whether there are areas or situations in which risk factors, such as the absence of confining rock layers or the presence of potential pathways for fluid movement into groundwater, establish a basis for encouraging more extensive baseline groundwater quality testing.

DEP has not required operators to identify potential conduits for fluid migration such as active and abandoned wells in the area of hydraulic fracturing. The team has recommended requiring operators to identify and eliminate these potential pathways for fluid movement into groundwater before conducting hydraulic fracturing operations.

The review team members, in addition to Chairman Lori Wrotenbery, Director of the Oil and Gas Conservation Division of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, were Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist from Louisiana, and Jim Collins, a petroleum engineer representing the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Dave Rectenwald of the U.S. EPA Office of Solid Waste, Brad Field, Director of the Division of Mineral Resources of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Steve Rhoads of East Resources, and Tom Au, Conservation Chair of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club participated as observers.


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