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Will More Enforcement Staff Overseeing Gas Drilling in Pennsylvania Be Enough to Ensure Safety?

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection will double its enforcement staff, open a new office closer to the drilling action and release new drilling regulations.

For months, the gas drilling industry and environmentalists alike have been fixated on New York, waiting for its environmental agency to hash out final drilling regulations so companies can take advantage of the vast gas reserves buried there.

But now some of those expectations can shift to New York’s neighbor to the south, Pennsylvania, where Gov. Edward Rendell has announced that the Department of Environmental Protection will nearly double its enforcement staff, open a new office closer to the drilling action and release new drilling regulations of its own.

In December, when ProPublica surveyed all 31 drilling states, we found that Pennsylvania was part of a national trend – as gas drilling ramped up, inspection staffing levels didn’t keep pace.

In 2008, Pennsylvania had just 35 people to oversee 74,774 wells – that’s more than 2,000 wells per inspector. But unlike many states, as the industry grew in Pennsylvania, the state started to buck this trend, beefing up its enforcement staff to 76 in 2009.

Now, with the DEP expecting permits for drilling in the Marcellus Shale to more than double this year, Pennsylvania is preparing to add 68 more people to its Bureau of Oil and Gas Management. To pay for the expansion, the DEP will dip into the fees it charges for drilling permits, which it raised last year for the first time since 1984. A proposed extraction tax – which Rendell mentioned in a press release announcing the new positions and is expected to bring up in his annual budget address today – could cushion the department even more.

DEP spokesman Neil Weaver tells us that 45 of the new hires will be on the oil and gas enforcement staff, bringing the number of inspectors to 121, more than three times as many as it had just two years ago. To put that in perspective, in 2008, Texas, the largest drilling state, had an enforcement staff of 106 to oversee 263,704 wells, of which 16,569 were new and required the most oversight.

The governor has also announced the opening of a new satellite oil and gas office in Scranton – in the heart of the Marcellus Shale – where 10 of the new hires will be based.

Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director of the citizens’ advocacy group Clean Water Action, offered a mixed review of the increase. "Obviously we’re glad to see that they’re continuing to increase the staff," he said, "but I do think there are some holes still, and some of it has to do with the funding process."

For this fiscal year, the DEP had more than a quarter of its budget cut. And when the state laid off 319 employees, the biggest hit – 138 positions – was dealt to the DEP. Another 120 vacant positions at the DEP were cut too, bringing the total department loss to 258 positions. Although the oil and gas division is adding positions because of the increased permit fees, that won’t help other divisions that are also involved in the drilling boom.

"There are other departments at DEP that are spending a lot of resources addressing the impacts of drilling," Arnowitt said. "Especially water management, which is issuing regulations, has an increase in wastewater plants applying, and water-related enforcement."

As drilling has ramped up in Pennsylvania, complaints about environmental problems have followed suit. Residents in Dimock had fields damaged from spills, and some believe that drilling caused the contamination of drinking water there. Elsewhere, the Monongahela River was contaminated by toxins from drilling wastewater, and there have been a slew of violations reported at drill sites across the state.

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