HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently took a step toward changing regulations regarding surface activity for oil and gas wells.

The Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) voted 3-2 to improve the regulation, but it will still have to pass the state House and Senate to become official state law.

“Really the purpose was to update existing regulations pertaining to the oil and gas industry to reflect advances in technology, focusing on requirements related to surface activities…and the department and the public wanting additional environmental safeguards and greater transparency regarding the industry,” Michelle Skjoldal told the Pennsylvania Record.

Skjoldal is an attorney in the Environment and Energy Practice Group of Pepper Hamilton LLP. She’s also a member of the firm’s Energy Industry Group.

The commission approved the regulations on the grounds of economic impact, public health and safety, reasonableness, impact on small businesses and clarity.

The updates have been a battle between state government and oil and gas interests dating back to 2011. With more than 30,000 public statements on record, the five-year war of words may finally be winding down.

Much of that fight has come from the conventional oil and gas companies, most of which claim they are small companies that just cannot afford to accommodate these updates. Many such companies traveled to Harrisburg to speak to the IRRC, but their pleading was to no avail.

“Industry is always concerned whenever a regulatory agency revises regulations,” Skjoldal said. “So certainly industry has an interest in making sure the DEP has an understanding of what really is practical and workable.”

Drillers for Marcellus Shale have voiced strong opposition for the last year, claiming Governor Tom Wolf has not been acting with transparency and made further updates to the proposed regulations shortly after taking office in 2015.

In the end, the vote unsurprisingly followed the familiar script of party lines. Three Democrats voted in favor of the regulations, while the two Republicans opposed.

One of the major changes includes updates to the permitting process. The regulations will not have any impact on activity in an oil or gas well, but it aims to make the planning process for new well sites safer and environmentally relevant.

Drillers will now have to identify when the rig will have an impact on public resources such as schools or parks. They will also need to point out old or abandoned wells that may have be dangerous due to new drilling.

The regulations also protect the water supply of nearby towns that may be affected by drilling or surface activities. If an oil or gas company taints the water supply, it will be their responsibility to restore it to levels approved by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“I’m sure, as with most regulatory packages, some provisions will function as intended which is to increase protection…I think there will be some benefits,” Skjoldal said. “But time will tell how it pans out.”

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