Gas well regulation clears final hurdle
BY ROBERT SWIFT
HARRISBURG – A new state regulation to require natural gas drillers to use stronger cement in wells and publicly disclose more information about chemicals used in fracking fluids cleared a final major hurdle Thursday.
The Independent Regulatory Review Commission voted unanimously to approve the well-construction regulation, which will take effect in early January after a legal review by the attorney general’s office and publication in the state’s legal bulletin.
The rule aims to prevent gas-migration problems that led to the well-publicized contamination of drinking water wells in Dimock Twp., which the state says is due to faulty or overpressurized cement casing in Marcellus Shale wells. This is the last of a series of state regulations adopted by the outgoing Rendell administration to address environmental issues spawned by the drilling boom for the deep gas pockets in the Marcellus Shale formation during the past several years.
“Are these regulations stringent enough?” asked commission member Arthur Coccodrilli of Peckville prior to the vote.
“We have made the regulations to state-of-the-art practice,” replied Scott Perry, director of the Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Oil and Gas Management. “The standards we have now, if followed to the letter, would have prevented the problems we have seen in Bradford and Susquehanna counties and Dimock.”
Perry said a new provision requiring drillers to file quarterly well-inspection reports would have alerted DEP to water contamination problems with Dimock wells if it had been in effect at the time. To deal with gas-migration problems, the regulation requires that well cement contain additives to retard the flow of gas, he said.
Other key provisions would require greater use of well-blowout prevention equipment, require drillers to report water pollution or water-loss problems within 24 hours instead of the current 10 days and reduce allowable pressure standards for well surface casings.
The regulation also tackles the controversial issue of what citizens should know about the chemicals used in the drilling process.
It will require drillers to disclose for the first time the names and amounts of chemicals they inject underground in hydraulic fracturing. This will include the name and percent by volume of each chemical additive, as well as the names, unique identifying numbers and amounts of hazardous chemicals that make up those additives.
However, the regulation allows drillers to designate some information – such as the chemical abstract service number – as proprietary information that would be given to DEP, but exempt from the public’s right to know, Perry said.
Following the commission’s approval of the new regulations, outgoing state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger said the public will be watching to see whether Gov.-elect Tom Corbett enforces the new state regulations and maintains the DEP as an independent watchdog agency.
“We’ve got rules in place now that will protect the public if followed and enforced,” said Hanger. “DEP must remain a professional independent watchdog of the industry.”
Corbett’s commitment to oversight will be weighed in light of nearly $1 million in contributions from the natural gas industry to his campaign, opposition to a state severance tax on natural gas production and intention to reverse Gov. Ed Rendell’s recent moratorium on additional drilling on state forest land in the Marcellus Shale formation, said Hanger.
“The burden of proof is on the governor-elect,” he added. “The industry doesn’t make these donations as a charitable contribution.”
A Corbett spokesman said Corbett called during the campaign for strict environmental rules to keep drilling away from water sources, disclosing chemicals in fracking fluids, increase fines for environmental violations and increase industry bonds to cover costs for environmental cleanups.
“These are proactive measures and not political rhetoric,” said spokesman Kevin Harley.
Corbett’s position against a severance tax was well known to the voters who elected him governor, added Harley. He said Hanger is appearing like a sore loser.