BY LAURA LEGERE
State environmental regulators are moving closer to a major revision of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas rules to address surface impacts caused by the development of pipelines, pits, impoundments and well sites.
The Department of Environmental Protection recently translated conceptual changes it outlined last year into much more precise draft rulemaking language that will be discussed at an advisory board meeting next week. The hope is to adopt the finalized rules by next winter.
The 73 pages of proposed rule changes largely turn several separate policies and last year’s amendments to the Oil and Gas Act into a single set of regulations contained in Chapter 78 of the Pennsylvania Code.
They create new limits on how wastes can be stored and processed on well sites, stricter standards for containing and reporting spills, and the first rules for temporary pipelines that transport fresh and wastewater to and from wells.
Robert Watson, Ph.D., a member of the Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board, called the proposals a “big deal” but said he believes they are “still in flux.” The challenge, he said, is to modernize regulations so they apply to the growing and sophisticated unconventional oil and gas industry in the state – including large corporations that harvest gas from the Marcellus and Utica shales – without putting the state’s traditionally small, conventional oil and gas operators out of business.
His personal opinion of the proposals is that “some of them may be overstated” but that the “intent is well founded” and he tends to support them, he said.
“Regulations with respect to industries that may impact potable water are necessary,” he said. “I want to make sure that they are technically sound and they’re doable.”
In one of the more notable proposals, the rules would have well operators ask for help from nearby landowners to track down any old, abandoned wells they might know of that are hidden on their properties. Operators would also have to use state data and farm line maps to identify any known abandoned wells within 1,000 feet of the path of a new well bore, including its horizontal leg, then monitor those abandoned wells during hydraulic fracturing and plug them if they are altered when the new well is fracked.
Orphaned and abandoned wells can create pathways for methane or other pollution to reach water supplies.
The proposed rules would eliminate some conventional operators’ use of long-term pits to hold the brine produced by a well during its lifetime, an “antiquated practice” with a “high” potential for failure, DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said.
“While few, if any, operators who are active today use these pits, DEP feels it is time that this practice be eliminated as an option.”
Another proposal would require operators to create spill prevention and response plans specific to each well site to prevent companies from relying on “generalized plans … and photocopied older plans with out-of-date and inaccurate information,” the department said in a summary of the revisions.
Mark Szybist, a staff attorney with the environmental organization PennFuture, called the body of proposed changes the “first real, nearly comprehensive revision of the Chapter 78 regulations since the 1980s,” when the rules were first developed.
A set of revisions targeted at strengthening well casing and cementing requirements was adopted in 2011.
Many of the proposals are “sorely needed,” he said, but he questioned whether they are protective enough.
The rules would not prohibit the use of short-term pits to catch the so-called “flowback” fluids that return from a well in the days after it is fracked. And while the department’s draft rules would add new reporting and construction requirements related to solid waste pits used at well sites, two conceptual rules proposed last year were dropped from the new draft: one would have required companies to get permission from landowners before burying the pit contents on site and the other would have forbidden them from burying rock waste from the horizontal leg of a well to “prevent potential pollution from encapsulated shale cuttings on well sites.”
“I’m not convinced, after a very brief look, that the standards and the analysis and the reporting requirements are sufficient to ensure that we won’t have mini landfills around the commonwealth,” Szybist said.
He welcomed new language that would allow managers of public resources – like parks, scenic river corridors, historic sites and public water supplies – to review and raise concerns about proposed drilling operations that might affect protected places. The department would then have the ability to add additional permit controls to avoid or mitigate the impacts, if necessary.
But he doubted that the 15 days the agencies would be given to review and respond to well plans would be enough.
“That takes some time,” he said. “I think it should be 30 at a minimum, possibly longer.”
He also questioned whether Chapter 78 is the right place for new rules controlling large wastewater impoundments, roadspreading of brine from conventional wells for de-icing and dust control, and erosion from well sites and pipeline right of ways, when other state rules and laws could address those operations without making special conditions for the oil and gas industry.
The technical advisory board will meet Wednesday, Feb. 20.
After the board reviews the draft rules, the proposed rulemaking will be sent to the Environmental Quality Board, which can either request changes or allow DEP to put the proposal out for public comment, Sunday said.