Suspension of Pollution Rules for Drilling Sought

Environmentalists decry Corbett move

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
26 February 2011
By Don Hopey

Just a week after repealing a policy requiring an environmental assessment of Marcellus Shale gas wells in state parks, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has announced it is suspending and reconsidering several key air pollution controls governing the drilling industry.

The changes, detailed in Friday's Pennsylvania Bulletin where official state actions are listed, would eliminate a guideline in place since December that requires the state to consider and regulate the collective or aggregate emissions of well operations in a region.

It's a directive that follows federal Clean Air Act regulations and, if air pollution emissions produce unhealthy air, could result in tighter pollution controls than if the wells are regulated individually.

The bulletin notice said the department is soliciting public comments on "whether any guidance or policy should be considered on this topic, and, if so, what such a policy or guidance might provide."

Environmental groups and Democrats criticized Friday's announced changes as another step by Gov. Tom Corbett to dismantle environmental and public health protections and boost the state's booming natural gas industry.

"This is troubling," said Jan Jarrett, president and chief executive officer of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, a statewide environmental group active on Marcellus issues.

She said that by rescinding the rule the DEP has lost an important tool for evaluating and reducing air pollution.

DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh said the agency's action was done with the intention of gathering input.

"The bottom line is that this document that DEP has rescinded was not a regulation. It did not change anything, except that it is opening the door for public comment. We look at all of these cases in a very specific case by case basis, and rescinding this document has not changed that," she said.

The DEP also is seeking public comment on a policy adopted last summer that regulates emissions from non-road, "stationary engines," including natural gas compressor station engines, which can be sources of smog-producing emissions.

Proposed revisions to emissions rules for those engines would, "offer greater flexibility to the regulated community," said the bulletin notice posted by DEP Acting Secretary Michael Krancer.

Joe Osborne, a Group Against Smog and Pollution attorney who has worked on the aggregation issue in West Virginia, said the practical effect of the guidance was to provide certainty to DEP permitting personnel about how complicated federal aggregation rules should be applied in the state's oil and gas operations.

"The point of the federal policies are to regulate air pollution in a region," Mr. Osborne said. "When you have a lot of sources that in total produce a lot of pollution emissions, you need to aggregate them and subject them to regulations that will control and reduce the pollution."

At this time, he said he is unaware of any sites in Pennsylvania where wells, condensate tanks and connected compressor stations have been aggregated and considered as a single major source by DEP regulators.

Approximately 2,800 Marcellus wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania, and industry estimates indicate as many as 60,000 wells could be drilled into the 380-million-year-old shale by 2030.

"The natural gas industry can provide environmental and health benefits, especially if natural gas can be used to replace coal in electric power generation," Ms. Jarrett said. "But those benefits can be overwhelmed if the production phase is not tightly regulated with strong rules."

Ms. Jarrett said the Wednesday fire at a Chesapeake Energy-owned Marcellus well site in Washington County clearly shows the industry needs more, not less, regulation.

"We need the DEP to act like a cop on the beat, but it's not doing that."

Written comments on the rescinded guidance and engine emissions rules should be mailed to Virendra Trivedi, Environmental Engineer Manager, New Source Review Section, Division of Permits, Bureau of Air Quality, 12th Floor, Rachel Carson State Office Building, P. O. Box 8468, Harrisburg, PA 17105-8468.

The department will also accept comments submitted by e-mail to Comments must be received by the DEP by May 26.

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.