DEP Suggests New Rules! to Marcellus Advisory Commission

1,000 Feet
That’s how close to your water supply (water well, surface water intake, or reservoir), a gas company could legally frack a gas well, unless waived by operator.

500 Feet
That’s how close to your private water well a gas company could legally drill.

When a gas well is hydraulically fractured, the drill bit goes down vertically for a few thousand feet, then it turns horizontally. It travels sideways for up to a mile before a charge is detonated to blast water, sand and chemicals into the rock.

The last time I checked, a mile was 5,280 feet.

In a May 27, 2011 letter to Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley, chairman of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, PA Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer submitted suggestions for changes to the current Oil & Gas Act. The suggestions are being considered by the Commission, who will make their recommendations to the governor. Their report is due on his desk by June 22.

Many of the DEP’s suggestions would create far stiffer regulation than current legislation allows, and are therefore positive. One example is prohibiting well sites in floodplains. However, my sense is that they generally fall shy of the regulatory mark. While some suggestions are downright sensible, like the “Cradle-to-grave manifesting of frack wastewater,” it’s important to note that compulsory tracking would only apply to high-volume wells, which the DEP defines as 80,000 gallons or more. Considering that some of the chemicals drillers deploy are highly carcinogenic, like benzene – which is extremely toxic in concentrations as small as one part per million – it seems reasonable for the state to require manifesting for all frack wastewater. Heck, even the fact that the DEP went ahead and used the term “frack” feels like a step forward. Fines will certainly be  higher than ever if the new regulations take effect. Yet, again, compared to major gas company earnings, they merely progress from their current gnat-status to that of a fly.

“Consideration of Impact on Public Resources”
This proposed change is a most curious one. Does it include historic landmarks, state parks… watersheds? Probably not. I do find it ironic that, as we near the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” her homestead, which is listed with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Pittsburgh History and Landmarks, is slated for a major renovation. At the same time, Philip Wallis, executive director of Audubon Pennsylvania, and a vice president of the National Audubon Society, wrote a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in an attempt to draw the agency’s attention to the potential harm caused by the construction of new natural gas pipelines on birds.

“The rapid growth of shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania,” Wallis writes, “is creating large‐scale changes to the landscape, converting relatively undisturbed rural areas to hotbeds of gas industry activity. The forests of the state, and the forest‐dependent species therein, are starting to show declines [emphasis added] in areas of denser gas industry activity.”  SOURCE: pressaction.com

Large-scale changes to Pennsylvania’s iconic landscapes are already occurring. The impacts of well pads, gathering pipelines and truck traffic on local terrestrial ecosystems will only be compounded as the Oil & Gas Act is amended, and the Gas Rush goes into full-swing. And I wonder, are the birds who nest along the Towanda Creek in LeRoy Township singing?

“Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all people, including generations yet to come. As Trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all people.”  – Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

The DEP’s suggestions appear to sternly and comprehensively address the most immediate environmental concerns over pollution and accidents from shale gas drilling today, but they don’t really address the potential problems looming in the future – such as water shortages, watershed degradation, species decline and deforestation. If the number of frack wells in our state soars, as analysts widely predict, what will Pennsylvania look – and sound – like fifty years from now?

To Read a pdf of DEP Secretary Krancer’s May 27th letter to Lt. Governor Jim Cawley, Chair of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission: DEP Suggestions for Marcellus Advisory Committee

 

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