By Ben Wolfgang
Pennsylvania over the past three years has greatly reduced the number of environmental incidents related to natural gas drilling, and state officials appear fully able to oversee the industry without intrusion from the federal government, according to a study released Tuesday.
Researchers at the University at Buffalo’s newly formed Shale Resources and Society Institute found that regulators in Pennsylvania, the epicenter of the Marcellus Shale boom that’s helped turn the U.S. into the world’s largest natural gas producer, are effectively holding gas companies’ feet to the fire. Environmental violations resulting from the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, have dropped significantly since 2008, the report shows.
“This study presents a compelling case that state oversight of oil and gas regulation has been effective,” said Timothy Considine, professor at the University of Wyoming and lead author of the survey. “Now we have comprehensive data that demonstrates, without ambiguity, that state regulation coupled with improvements in industry practices results in a low risk of an environmental event occurring in shale development, and the risks continue to diminish year after year.”
But opposition groups contend the cumulative impact of more and more wells being drilled must be considered: As more wells are drilled, the number of environmental incidents increases. The study shows the overall number of incidents tripled from 2008 to 2011, even though the number per well went down.
The study examined all 2,988 violations cited by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from January 2008 through August 2011, during which time more than 3,500 natural gas wells were drilled.
Nearly two-thirds of the violations were deemed “administrative” in nature and had no physical impact. The remaining violations resulted from 845 “environmental events,” with 25 classified as “major” events such as land spills, well blowouts or site restoration failures.
From 2008 to 2010, the percentage of violations in relation to the number of wells drilled dropped from 58.2 percent to 30.5 percent, the report shows. From January to August 2011, it declined even further, dipping to 26.5 percent.
Pennsylvania’s DEP has regularly fined companies for their violations, and the state adopted new regulatory guidelines last year after Republican Gov. Tom Corbett took office. Collaboration between the industry and state officials, the report says, has led to effective cleanup and “largely mitigated” the environmental impacts of nearly all of the major events examined in the study.
Pennsylvania’s success could serve as a model for New York, which has yet to allow drilling companies to tap its portions of the vast Marcellus Shale deposit. The proposed regulatory framework in the Empire State, if and when drilling begins, would be more than adequate, the study found.
“New York’s current regulations would prevent or mitigate each of the identified major environmental events that occurred in Pennsylvania,” said John Martin, institute director and co-author of the report.
The survey comes at a time when many industry leaders are growing increasingly concerned that federal rules, such as those proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, could hamper the development of domestic natural gas.
The Interior Department has proposed a new permitting process for all drilling on federal lands, while the EPA earlier this year released new air emissions standards for natural gas operations and will later this year unveil a widely anticipated draft report on the links between fracking and suspected water contamination.
Industry leaders are mounting a pushback against those efforts, arguing that states such as Pennsylvania, New York and others are far better equipped to craft guidelines specific to their geographic and environmental situations, rather than rely on a one-size-fits-all standard from Washington, D.C.
The Buffalo study provides new evidence, its authors argue, that state governments are able to do the job.
“Pennsylvania is fully capable of being able to manage its oil and gas regulations,” said report co-author and Penn State University professor Robert Watson in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.