Pa. rules panel OKs new gas-drilling safeguards

November 18, 2010 5:12:47 PM PST
Crews rushing to drill deep, high-pressure wells into the vast Marcellus Shale reservoir beneath Pennsylvania will soon have tougher safety standards to obey as regulators work to modernize the state's environmental protection laws.

The Independent Regulatory Review Commission, the gatekeeper of Pennsylvania state regulations, unanimously approved a set of proposed standards at its Thursday meeting. The rules are expected to be published and final by January.

"Today's action is another major step in making sure that Pennsylvania updates its regulations and grows its oversight with the Marcellus industry," Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger said after the vote.

Hanger's agency wrote the proposal, the latest of several sets of new regulations designed to protect waterways and drinking water supplies from methane migrating underground, well-site chemical spills and the massive volumes of toxic sludge that emerge from newly drilled wells.

Hanger said more work remains to be done. For instance, he said, fines for violating the state's regulations remain too low, as is the amount of insurance that each company is required to buy to plug abandoned wells. The current requirement is $25,000 per company, while a single well can cost as much as $100,000 to plug, Hanger said.

In addition, a recent increase in the individual well-permitting fee that helps pay the salaries of inspectors may need to be reinforced by more fees, such as an annual fee on each well, as the agency tries to expand to regulate the rush of new wells being drilled, Hanger said.

The regulations approved Thursday would lower the maximum allowable well pressure, raise standards for well cement and pipes and strengthen the industry's obligations to investigate and report incidents of gas migrating out of well bores and into residential water wells.

"I think the standards we have now, if employed in the past, ... would have prevented the problems we've seen up in Bradford County and Susquehanna County," said Scott Perry, director of the department's bureau of oil and gas management.

Perry said he views the new standards as "state of the art." The department said in September that at least six residential wells in Bradford County were tainted with methane, believed to be caused by Chesapeake Energy Corp.'s drilling operations. In neighboring Susquehanna County, the agency has accused Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. of contaminating the water wells of nearly 20 residents.

The regulations also will require drilling companies to send electronic well-completion reports to the department that include the volumes and identities of chemicals used in each well.

While the volumes may be kept confidential by the department as a trade secret that is exempt from the public's right to know, the department will be able to produce a publicly available map that shows which chemical was injected underground at each well site, Perry said.


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