PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection thinks it is doing a good job regulating the biggest gas drilling boom in the nation, but environmental groups say that a new state report is far too optimistic.
The DEP report issued this week claims that Pennsylvania is a "world class leader" in regulating oil and gas production and balancing economic and environmental needs.
That's hardly the case, said Delaware Riverkeeper Maya K. van Rossum.
"Pennsylvania is either fooling itself, or working hard to fool the world" and that no one should look to the state as a model, van Rossum wrote in an email. She added that Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices mentioned environmental concerns in a landmark ruling last years that overturned parts of recent oil and gas legislation.
"Pennsylvania's shale gas program, laws and regulations do not prevent the harms of shale gas development," said van Rossum, whose environmental group focuses on water-quality issues. Many environmental groups say there have been too many instances of water and air pollution related to the drilling practice known as fracking, while state regulators claim they are rare.
The Marcellus Shale lies under large parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia and a drilling boom that began in 2008 has turned the region into one of the most productive natural gas fields in the nation.
The DEP report contains some statistics but is light on key details.
For example, it said that the number of violations at unconventional well sites decreased from 1,281 to 512 between 2010 and 2013, but didn't specify how many fines were issued last year.
The report also stressed that DEP has increased the number of field inspectors since 2008, but failed to mention that the figure has stayed the same over the last few years, despite booming production.
"They do need more staff. The level of activity has gone up," said Cindy Dunn, CEO of the environmental group PennFuture.
Dunn said that while individual DEP staff members do good work, large numbers of citizens still have major concerns about how the drilling boom is being regulated.
"That alone is an indicator that the public does not feel protected," Dunn said, adding that DEP needs to do a better job of reporting water pollution complaints and should also do more to regulate leaks of methane, the primary component of natural gas.
The report said that DEP approved 2,965 permits for unconventional shale gas drilling last year, and that energy companies drilled 1,207 unconventional wells using hydraulic fracturing or fracking, forcing a mix of water sand and chemicals deep underground. The process, which has brought major economic benefits, has also led to fears of polluted water supplies.
The report also said the state approved permits for 967 conventional wells, which are much smaller.
DEP said that the state expects this year to finish a report on naturally occurring radioactive material in shale gas waste, and also issue a report on long-term air quality monitoring near natural gas compressors and processing stations.