PennFuture Blog

Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues

The Dangers of Senate Bill 790

As soon as the Chamber returns to legislative session in January, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is poised to take up Senate Bill 790, an unprecedented rollback of environmental protections across the state. Our elected leaders must stand against this potentially devastating bill by voting against the bill.

The oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania, including conventional drillers, is prominent and extremely lucrative. The revenues, however, come at the cost of damaging our environment and health, and exacerbates our climate change concerns. According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Health, there have been approximately 350,000 conventional oil and gas wells and roughly 10,000 unconventional oil and gas wells drilled across the Commonwealth.  

Despite the overwhelmingly large gap between the two types of drilling, conventional oil and gas drilling has declined recently due to large investments and the production of much larger operations in unconventional drilling. SB 790, put forth by Senator Joe Scarnati, aims to revive the conventional industry, but at the expense of undoing years of regulations by reenacting the Oil and Gas Act of 1984. Conventional drilling advocates argue that their industry is different than those employing hydraulic fracturing methods in Pennsylvania, but there is no difference in spills and dirty water, whether caused by conventional or unconventional drilling industries.

Loosening Requirements for Industry While Putting Water at Risk

SB 790 capitulates to the oil and gas industry to help “optimize” Pennsylvania’s natural resources for the industry’s economic benefit. The bill encourages and promotes dirty energy usage in Pennsylvania and puts our water quality at risk. Though this threatens the future, the immediate effects on the environment and human health are far more troubling and outweigh the monetary and economic benefits it might bring. Generally, SB 790 loosens restrictions and facilitates a lack of accountability for the oil and natural gas industry.

For example, the bill allows up to 5 barrels of oil and up to 15 barrels of oil and gas water to be spilled and go unreported. This affects downstream users who are unaware that the spill even occurred. Moreover, SB 790 prohibits communities from creating more protective regulations to keep leaks and spills away from homes, schools, and other buildings, which is simply irresponsible.

One of the most concerning issues is with replacement water due to an unexpected spill, leak, or emergency. The tainted water must be replaced, but that water does not have to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act standards. This is a dangerous precedent as it allows for entities to pollute our state’s precious water resources with unfiltered, dirty wastewater that is not safe for drinking or even swimming. 

Toxicity Potential & Health Impacts of Drilling Wastewater

This bill also allows for brine, or untreated wastewater, to be used as a dust suppressant on roads throughout Pennsylvania, which directly violates the Solid Waste Management Act, in which potentially toxic wastewater isn’t allowed on roads. Excess brine runoff can easily make its way into waterways and systems for drinking water and recreational activities. 

In a recent study on the health impacts of oil and gas wastewater on roads, researchers at Penn State University found that there is a large potential to aquatic and human toxicity caused by the application of wastewater brine on roads.The study claimed that, “Through a variety of experiments simulating (oil and gas) wastewater application to roads, followed by simulated rain events, the majority of contaminants were found not to be retained in the road. The high salt concentrations are likely the major potential threat to aquatic toxicity, requiring up to 1,600 times dilution to reach drinking water quality standards.”

Penn State researchers also disturbingly found that radium, a carcinogen from oil and gas wastewater, was found to leave the roads, impacting local watersheds. This wastewater is exempt from reporting, meaning the chemicals in the water do not have to be identified and can be kept confidential even when improperly disposed onto Pennsylvania land and water. SB 790 goes beyond that to specify that brine will no longer be defined as “waste.”  Pennsylvania roads are already bombarded with enough salt to combat ice, and there is no need for Pennsylvania citizens to be exposed to more dangerous and toxic chemicals on our streets and in our water.

Stop Senate Bill 790

Currently, SB 790 is in the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, which is led by Republican Chairman Daryl Metcalfe. It is imperative that House members oppose Senate Bill 790. The conventional oil and gas industry should not have weaker rules for clean water protection, and rolling back regulations 35 years is obscene. We, as a state, have come too far and are too close to a brighter, cleaner future to roll back and roll over now.

Tell your State Representative to protect our water quality and OPPOSE Senate Bill 790 today.

Editor's note: PennFuture intern Ethan Silverstein co-authored this blog post.

Get the Latest onOur PennFuture

Sign up for email updates on the latest news, events, and opportunities to make a difference.

Sign Up