Regulating PA’s Natural Gas Rush

February 07, 2012

Since 2008, the newly-accessible natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale region have opened up an administrative and regulatory Pandora’s Box for the state of Pennsylvania. The gas is harvested through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The extraction method has pit neighbors against neighbors in heated discussions about the trade-offs between health, environment, national security, and money.

By Christina Tierno, Associate Consultant (MPA '12)

According to an industry-funded study, drilling in the state is expected to generate $20 billion for Pennsylvania’s economy by 2020 but the cost of cleanup is likely to be high as well, with industry standard operating procedures, violations, and accidents contributing to habitual contamination.

So, how does PA regulate and oversee this industry amidst the heated political environment and wrestling match for control?

Disagreements between industry, PA’s executive branch, and residents have centered on everything from environmental contamination to taxes. Deeping the rift, and the feeling of collusion between shale drillers and PA’s government, was Governor Corbett’s September 2011 decision to change how the industry is regulated and overseen. Under his plan, Corbett will shift regulation and oversight away from the Department of Environmental Protection to the elevated Bureau of Oil and Gas Management. Corbett contends that this will be a fairer and better way to control fracking and minimize negative consequences. Opponents feel that it paves the way for increased politicization over natural gas development.

Updates to the state’s Oil and Gas Act may limit the autonomy of municipalities to regulate natural gas development within their borders. Supporters of fracking are trying to standardize the regulations across the state to facilitate development. Right now, municipalities can decide how loudly drillers can operate, where rights can be sited, and how far they must be set back from residences, etc. Some PA communities, like Pittsburgh, have outright bans on fracking. But, alternations to this Act could change that. Earlier versions of planned amendments, backed by Gov. Corbett, would have eliminated local control entirely.

Already, residents are complaining that their drinking water, provided by groundwater wells, has been contaminated by fracking fluid – the mixture of water, chemicals, and fossil fuels that is pumped into the ground and back up. The exact formula of the fluid is proprietary, another problem. The Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. has already been providing a handful of families in northeastern PA with purified water for three years, trucked in from a clean source. That service ended in November 2011 when the state government absolved the company of its responsibility, outraging residents who assert Cabot’s activities caused pollution which led to their brown-tinged water, dizzy spells, and body sores.

After wavering on the issue, this move eventually prompted the federal Environmental Protection Agency to step in and resume providing water, in addition to performing additional testing in neighboring wells. This is a relatively strong stand for the EPA, which has caught heat from environmental groups for being soft on this new drilling technology. After the EPA hedged on the likelihood of groundwater contamination from fracking, it has recently stated that fracking ‘may have’ spoiled fresh water resources in certain parts of the country. The conclusion was immediately criticized by industry as well as a US Senator.

The governance issues here are plentiful and difficult for public administrators to navigate. Complicating the regulatory process, the polarizing discussion and treatment of this multi-faceted issue is causing people to choose sides: industry or the environment – manifested in the fall out from impact fee discussions. As we’ve seen on other issues, simplification and demonizing opposing views never leads to a productive discussion, or a fair, well-balanced outcome.

We’ll need skilled public administrators who understand both the science and the politics to keep our water clean, ecosystems intact, and safely and profitably extract this resource. Otherwise, government isn’t working.

Christina Tierno is a graduate student at the Fels Institute of Government. In addition to her work with Fels Research & Consulting, she is pursing her Master's in Public Administration and Environmental Studies.

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