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DEP report critical of conventional oil and gas industry

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Last July, HB 2644 became law without the governor’s signature.

The legislation directed the state Department of Environmental Protection to use federal funds to operate a well plugging grant program as well as set the bond amounts on conventional oil and gas wells.

Then-Gov. Tom Wolf raised significant concerns about the bill – as have many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club which asserted that the legislation would “further likely forfeit the state’s access to tens of millions of dollars in federal funding.”

Wolf, however, let the bill become law as part of a broader budget compromise but asked DEP to provide an evaluation and recommendations to him.

That report brought a rather scathing review of the conventional industry.

“The conventional oil and gas industry’s recent record of compliance with Pennsylvania law is simply not good, particularly with regard to improper abandonment of wells,” the report states. “Overall performance is so poor among operators with 11 or more conventional oil and gas wells that the failure to report seems to be an industry-wide rule rather than the exception.

“A significant change in the culture of non-compliance as an acceptable norm in the conventional oil and gas industry will need to occur before meaningful improvement can happen.”

Data included in the report note that just 27.1 percent of operators submitted data by the reporting deadline while 56.6 failed to submit required reporting data at all.

“The widespread reporting non-compliance by the conventional oil and gas industry denies DEP and the public critical information about the operating status of individual wells, the overall industry, and, in the case of mechanical integrity assessments, may pose a threat to public health and safety and the environment,” the DEP asserts.

Part of the reason for the report was to make recommendations for the future and DEP claims that it has the “authority and tools necessary to take appropriate steps to begin to address these issues without significant additional program development efforts” though the agency acknowledges that it will have to “further develop and refine its techniques for deterring violations and encouraging compliance with relevant statutory and regulatory provisions.”

DEP outlined efforts in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Grade Crude Development Advisory on both regulatory and legislative changes that ultimately “reached an impasse” in 2020 with Wolf’s veto of the Conventional Oil and Gas Wells Act (COGWA).

“Given the lack of progress on COGWA,” DEP explained, “the Department restarted the rulemaking process to address these issues in 2020,” which the Crude Development Advisory Council “vigorously opposed” to many of the proposed rules aimed at “environmental protection standards.”

With the Wolf tenure coming to an end, the report suggests that DEP “continue to move these proposed rulemakings” ahead in 2023 and also leaves the brine-on-dirt-roads question to the incoming administration.

“The Department anticipates this proposed rulemaking will be silent as to the practice of road spreading of conventional oil and gas well brine,” the report says, “but that practice could potentially be addressed through this rulemaking.”

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