May 25, 2021

Shapiro, lawmakers tout new batch of fracking oversight bills

Shapiro, lawmakers tout new batch of fracking oversight bills

State lawmakers on Tuesday pitched new legislation to tighten fracking industry oversight and accountability standards. 

Pennsylvania Senate Democrats, joined by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, said the package of bills was drafted in response to last year’s grand jury report on the unconventional oil and gas industry. 

The bills would move drilling sites further away from homes, schools, hospitals and reservoirs and give the attorney general’s office original criminal jurisdiction over oil and gas companies by amending existing laws. Currently, the office can't prosecute environmental crimes without a referral from an agency with legal jurisdiction, lawmakers said, which is often time consuming.

“I can tell you first hand how frustrating it is that the Office of the Attorney General does not currently have that jurisdiction,” said state Sen. Steve Santarsiero, D-10, Lower Makefield, a former chief deputy attorney general for environmental protection in Pennsylvania. “It really does hamper the ability to prosecute those who pollute our environment.”

Another proposal would require gas companies to publicly disclose the chemicals used in operations before taking action. 

No-drill zones would be expanded from 500 feet to 2,500 feet in the case of homes, and to 5,000 feet in the case of hospitals, reservoirs and schools.

“It's common sense to ensure that fracking is not happening next to a school, or too close to someone’s home,” Shapiro said. “It’s common sense for fracking companies to be transparent about the chemicals they are using near the water supplies in homes.”

Sponsors include Santarsiero, Sen. Katie Muth, D-44, Berks, and Sen. Maria Collett, D-12, Bucks. The legislation will likely face opposition from Republican lawmakers and industry supporters. 

“This package of bills should’ve been enacted before a single permit was approved by the DEP,” said Muth. “For over 10 years, Pennsylvanians have been left in the dark about the cumulative health impacts of the extraction industry and often have no idea what kind of harmful chemicals are being used right in their backyard or leaching into their water supplies.”

Sen. Gene Yaw, R-23, Lycoming County, on Tuesday called the move a “legislative wish list” and an effort to “peddle misinformation.”

Yaw, chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said his Democratic colleagues ignored the high regulatory standards already placed on natural gas development in Pennsylvania, pointing to Act 13’s enhanced environmental protections and impact fees. 

“Act 13 of 2012 raised over 40 environmental standards including appropriate handling of waste and protecting water resources,” he said in a statement. “Pennsylvania’s impact tax has provided over $100 million to DEP and county conservation districts to enforce our environmental standards.”

Marcellus Shale Coalition president David Callahan in a statement said Pennsylvania’s “world-class” regulations have earned high marks from independent oil and gas reviewers, noting safety and health is a top priority among industry leaders. 

The bills proposed Tuesday are based on factual inaccuracies and generalizations, he argued.

“These proposed bills, based on the attorney general’s report that state environmental regulators called ‘factually and legally inaccurate,’ jeopardize the shared economic and community benefits of shale gas development all while threatening family sustaining jobs across our commonwealth,” he said. 

Following a two-year investigation, Pennsylvania’s 43rd Statewide Investigating Grand Jury found key state agencies failed to protect residents from the health and environmental impacts of gas drilling operations for years.

The grand jury’s report revealed multiple instances of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health failing to properly regulate fracking operations.

In the early years of Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom, residents complaining of nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, dead livestock and dirty water were often overlooked by environmental regulators and the health department, the grand jury found before making legislative recommendations. 

Environmental groups, including PennFuture and the Sierra Club, lauded the “sorely needed” legislation. 

“There has been an enormous gap for years between our constitutional guarantees, and laws and regulations in place to protect or enforce those guarantees,” said PennFuture CEO Jacquelyn Bonomo. "Each of us has a right to clean air, pure water, and a healthy environment, and the legislation put forth today will go a long way toward protecting those rights for every Pennsylvanian.”