Pa. lawmakers want stricter regulations on fracking

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aeriel view of a well pad
Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office

Democratic lawmakers introduced a slew of bills meant to tighten up regulations on Pennsylvania’s shale gas industry.

The package of legislation came as a response to last summer’s grand jury report on the unconventional oil and gas industry. The report found the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection failed to protect residents from the health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said, during a May 25 press conference announcing the bills, that the grand jury report found a gap between the public’s constitutional rights to clean air and water and the reality of the law. 

“For far too long, fracking companies and regulators turned a blind eye to the health and safety impact of this industry on hard working Pennsylvanians, their communities and their families,” he said. 

The legislation

The legislation addresses the eight recommendations made by the grand jury, including expanding setbacks from 500 to 2,500 feet, requiring fracking companies to publicly disclose all chemicals used in drilling before they’re used and require safer transport of the fracking waste

It would give the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General criminal jurisdiction over environmental crimes. Current the attorney general’s office can only intervene after getting a referral from a local district attorney, the DEP or another agency with jurisdiction.

The legislation would also limit the ability of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection employees to work in the oil and gas industry immediately after leaving the department and regulate natural gas gathering lines, which are currently only regulated at the federal level.

The bills were announced during a May 25 press conference, but specific language for some of the bills was not available immediately. Sens. Steve Santarsiero, Maria Collett, Katie Muth, John Sabatina and Carolyn Comitta will sponsor and co-sponsor the bills.

The report

The grand jury report was released last June with a splashy press conference where Shapiro held up a jar of cloudy brown water. It was well water from a resident who said their water had been contaminated by fracking, he said.

Shapiro recounted how residents told the grand jury about the various health issues they they suffered from living near unconventional drilling sites, including sores, ulcers, rashes, breathing issues and stomach ailments. Pets and livestock became ill and some died, he said.

“The grand jurors heard repeated testimony of small children waking up with severe nosebleeds. One parent testified that her 4-year-old daughter was waking up crying with blood pouring out of her nose,” Shapiro said, during the press conference.

The report was the result of a two-year investigation that included testimony from 70 households. Current and former state employees also testified. 

The DEP responded to the report, saying it presented an “inaccurate and incomplete picture of Pennsylvania’s regulatory program.” The department defended itself in a 49-page response.

The reaction

Republican Sen. Gene Yaw, chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said in a statement May 25 that the report was an effort to peddle misinformation and defended the DEP’s work to regulate the oil and gas industry.

“In 2019, 700 wells were drilled in Pennsylvania. At the same time, there were 19,485 inspections of the industry. What other employer in Pennsylvania has regulators on its doorstep that many times in a year?” Yaw said.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition also spoke out against the proposed legislation. MSC President David Callahan said, in a statement, the bills jeopardize the economic and community benefits of shale gas development while threatening jobs.

“Despite what some suggest, Pennsylvania’s world-class regulations have earned high marks from independent oil and gas reviewers and are focused at every step of the way — with our industry’s strong support — on ensuring safe natural gas development and transportation,” he said.

Environmental groups celebrated the legislative package. Tom Torres, director of the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter, said it was an important step forward. PennFuture President Jacquelyn Bonomo called the bills sorely-needed.

“Each of us has a right to clean air, pure water and a healthy environment, and the legislation put forth today will go a long way toward protecting those rights for every Pennsylvanian,” she said, in a statement.

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