Harrisburg Takes Reins for Marcellus Enforcement

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
31 March 2011
By Don Hopey,

Field inspectors and regional directors for the state Department of Environmental Protection have been told they must obtain approval from DEP Secretary Michael Krancer before issuing permits or enforcing regulations pertaining to Marcellus Shale drilling, according to internal department memos.

The new rules requiring preapproval by officials in Harrisburg even extend to routine matters such as notices of violations that previously were issued by inspectors and their regional directors.

Jan Jarrett, president and chief executive officer of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, a statewide environmental group active on Marcellus issues, said the new procedures "make a joke out of inspections."

"When they see violations, they have a duty to write them up, but now they must first run them up the chain of command to get a political OK," she said. "It completely undercuts the independence and professionalism of the inspectors."

Word of the major procedural change, which was not publicly announced, was emailed March 23 to DEP regional directors and the director of its Oil & Gas Bureau by John Hines, DEP executive deputy secretary.

The email directs them, "effective immediately," to take no final action involving Marcellus Shale drilling before getting "final clearance" from Mr. Krancer, an attorney from Bryn Mawr who was appointed to his position in January by Gov. Tom Corbett.

Permitting and enforcement actions also must be preapproved by Mr. Hines and Dana Aunkst, who this month was appointed acting DEP deputy secretary for field operations.

Katy Gresh, a DEP spokeswoman, characterized the move as a procedural change and said that it was designed to help the agency bring consistency to its enforcement actions.

"During Secretary Krancer's meetings with legislators and his confirmation and budget hearings, one message he heard loud and clear is that constituents perceive there is inconsistency at DEP.

"We want to ensure that as we regulate this industry, we are protecting the environment in every corner of the commonwealth, and we believe this procedure for violation notifications will achieve that," Ms. Gresh said.

The new policy was widely criticized internally by staff at DEP, so much so that Mr. Aunkst needed to send a follow-up email to the regional directors March 24 apologizing for the "significant confusion and consternation" it caused but not backing off any of the new requirements.

John Hanger, who was DEP secretary during the last two years of the Rendell administration, called the policy change "exceptionally unwise."

He predicted it would cause the public to lose faith in the state's ability to fairly and independently regulate development of the Marcellus Shale gas reserves.

"This can do nothing but crater public confidence in inspections and oversight of the industry," Mr. Hanger said. "It will not benefit the industry, which will be the biggest loser because it needs the authentic, independent and professional inspections and oversight to maintain confidence in the industry. This intrusion into longstanding professional practices by political appointees is the opposite of what should be happening."

The policy puts political appointees in direct control of permit issuance and enforcement actions. Between January 2008 and June 2010 DEP inspectors issued 1,400 notices of violation at Marcellus Shale gas drilling sites.

Mr. Hanger said that if the new policy was done for legitimate oversight or coordination reasons, it would apply to all of the department's inspections, and that an appeal process is already in place. All violations can be appealed to the Environmental Hearing Board.

He said the changes would "chill" enforcement efforts.

"Anyone who says otherwise is not being honest," Mr. Hanger said. "The new policy tells the inspector that he's going to be second-guessed from a distance by individuals not familiar with the site. It's 180 degrees from where things ought to stand."

He also theorized that such a policy change probably wouldn't be done without the direct involvement or support of Mr. Corbett's office.

The governor's office by late afternoon had not returned Post-Gazette calls seeking comment on the regulation and Mr. Hanger's remarks.

Ms. Gresh said, however, that the governor's office was not involved in the policy change.

"It did not come from the governor," Ms. Gresh said. "The governor's office did not have a hand in this."

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.