Tuesday, February 18, 2014

DEP Budget Hearing Questions Focus On Gas Well Explosion, Well Regulation Issues

The natural gas well explosion in Greene County last week and DEP’s Oil and Gas Program were  the focus of many of the questions members of the Senate Appropriations Committee asked DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo Tuesday as he appeared before the Committee to answer questions about his agency’s FY 2014-15 budget request.
The response to the well explosion, the adequacy of fees supporting the regulatory program, the top three violations in the program, the recent Act 13 court decision and the proposal for additional natural gas leasing on DCNR lands were all topics covered in the questioning.
Click Here for a copy of Secretary Abruzzo’s written budget testimony.
Here’s a summary of some of the more important questions and answers--
Greene County Gas Well Explosion: In response to a question Sen. Yaw (R-Lycoming), Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, about the availability of funding to deal with an incident like the Greene County well explosion, Secretary Abruzzo said they have sufficient funds to cover staff responding to the emergency.  He said they will seek reimbursement for DEP’s costs in responding to the emergency from the well owner.  He noted DEP had about a dozen people on scene, in addition to his own two-day visit to the site, as well as other senior DEP staff.
Sen. Yaw noted Pennsylvania College of Technical has a hands-on emergency response training facility in Lycoming County that can be duplicate many natural gas well emergencies.
Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne), Minority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said he understood there was an agreement with the industry in the past to improve emergency crew response times to emergencies like the well fire.  He noted the response time average has been about 9 hours.  Secretary Abruzzo said emergency crews do have a location in Pennsylvania with equipment, but that negotiations under the previous Administration did not result in any specific agreements.
Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne), Majority Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, said she would like to work with DEP on a number of issues, including: prepositioning emergency response resources for well emergencies, additional training and other measures to improve emergency response.  Secretary Abruzzo said he would be happy to work with her.
Sen. Tim Solobay (D-Washington), Minority Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, said he appreciated the response by DEP staff, including executive staff, and the local emergency responders saying, “Everyone did what was supposed to be done in a textbook way” to deal with the well fire.  He asked if there were any gaps in the response the Secretary has identified so far.  Secretary Abruzzo echoed the Senator’s comment and said DEP was early in the process of doing an after-action report to identify weaknesses in the response and in investigating the causes of the explosion.
Oil and Gas Well Fee Increases: Sen. Yaw asked for background on the recent oil and gas permit fee increases and the number of DEP staff has for the program are adequate.  Secretary Abruzzo said DEP will add another 36 people to the program, in-part, as a result of the fee increase.  There are a total of 87 inspectors in the program, but many other supporting technical staff.
In response to a follow-up, Secretary Abruzzo said fee-based, pay-as-you go funding to support programs is an approach DEP has embraced and the agency is updating its fees across programs.
Sen. Wozniak (D-Cambria) asked if the funding from the Act 13 drilling impact fees are adequate to cover DEP’s Oil and Gas Program costs.  Jeff Logan, Executive Deputy for Administration and Management, said the Act 13 fees cover about one-third of the cost of the Program.  Along with the permit fees, fines and penalties, 100 percent of the program are not supported by General Fund monies.
Additional Drilling On State Lands: In response to a question from Sen. Yudichak, Secretary Abruzzo said he was not consulted in developing the proposal for additional natural gas leasing on state lands.  He said DCNR was like any other landowner who would have to following DEP’s permitting rules.  He noted the proposal would not allow additional drill pads on state lands and DEP would use its authority to ensure State Park land would be protected from negative impacts.
Act 13 Court Decision: Sen. Yudichak asked for an update on the impact of the recent Act 13 court decision.  Secretary Abruzzo said not all the setback provisions were knocked down by the decision, but DEP is looking for other statutory authority to support setbacks DEP has enforced.  He noted Gov. Corbett has called on the oil and gas industry to meet all the existing setbacks.  He said the provisions related to the Environmental Rights Amendment are already in many of DEP’s permit programs, but they are working through the issues.
Top 3 Violations In Oil and Gas Program: In response to a question from Sen. Vulakovich (R-Allegheny), Dana Aunkst, Executive Deputy for Programs, said the top three violations in the Oil and Gas Program are: erosion and sedimentation, wetlands encroachment and waste handling violations.
Natural Gas Pipeline Impacts: Sen. Rafferty (R-Montgomery) asked for Secretary Abruzzo’s help in getting the state more say in the location and regulation of natural gas pipelines.  The Secretary said he would work with the Senator, along with the Public Utility Commission, on this issue.
Beneficial Use Of Drill Cuttings: In response to a question from Sen. Yudichak, Secretary Abruzzo said DEP has a study that should be done by the end of the year on radiation issues related to drilling wastes that should provide some additional guidance to agency actions.
Health Effects Of Natural Gas Drilling: Sen. Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) asked about support for research on the health impacts of drilling, including a recent proposal by the University of Pennsylvania.   Secretary Abruzzo said he has met with the University of Pennsylvania officials and made his staff available to them.  He said he welcomes studies on the issue.
Alternative Fuel/Natural Gas Fuel Grants: In response to a question from Sen. Greenleaf who said he was hoping to pass legislation allowing the use of electric golf cart-type vehicles on streets in a limited way to promote use of alternative fuel vehicles,  Secretary Abruzzo said the Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant Program and additional funding provided by the Act 13 impact fees has been effective in helping to convert vehicles to natural gas and promote the purchase of electric vehicles.
Crude Oil Train Derailments: Sen. Yudichak said two recent crude oil train derailments put this issue in the spotlight and he wanted to know what DEP is working on to deal with this issue.  Secretary Abruzzo said DEP has adequate resources in place to handle emergencies of this type, noting the PA Emergency Management Agency is working in a number of areas to improve communication with railroads on what they are carrying on trains at any given moment.
West Virginia Chemical Spill: Sen. Schwank (D-Berks) asked how would Pennsylvania respond to a spill like the one in West Virginia recently and are state regulations tight enough to deal with the issue.  Secretary Abruzzo said the 1988 Ashland oil spill in Pittsburgh led to the passage of the Storage Tank and Spill Prevention Act and storage tank containment and construction standards.  He said we’ve had our disaster and we responded to it  He noted West Virginia has asked for Pennsylvania’s storage tank regulations as background to improving their own program.  He said DEP has a very good emergency response program, if they get a timely notification of incidents.
Conservation Districts: In response to a question from Sen. Vogel, Secretary Abruzzo said DEP received additional $24 million in funding under the transportation funding plan for the Dirt and Gravel Road Program and about has about $7 million from the Growing Greener Program to help support conservation districts and he was glad to see it included in the budget.
Stream Maintenance: Secretary Abruzzo said in response to a question from Sen. Yaw and Sen. Vulakovich, the Bradford County stream clearance pilot project is proceeding rapidly with its evaluation of the emergency stream clearance program, training for contractors and municipal officials and they are in the middle of developing a better general permit to cover emergency stream clearance activities.  He said DEP does have to do a better job educating local governments on emergency permit requirements.
Passive Mine Drainage Treatment Systems Maintenance: Sen. Wozniak asked if DEP had a mechanism to help fund maintenance of passive mine drainage treatment systems installed over the last decade and more so they can continue operate effectively.  Secretary Abruzzo said these systems are making a tremendous difference in improving water quality and he has seen them first-hand.  He said he would get the Senator more information.
Abandoned Mine Reclamation: Sen. Yudichak asked for an update on DEP initiatives to use waste materials to reclaim the many coal mine highwalls left from abandoned mine lands.  Secretary Abruzzo said they are always looking for ways to beneficially reuse materials because of the significant reclamation problems Pennsylvania faces.
DRBC Funding: Sen. Baker asked for an update on the cut to the Delaware River Basin Commission budget and the need to find a new Executive Director.  Secretary Abruzzo said Pennsylvania taxpayers have been paying more than their fair share to support DRBC, more than other states.  He noted the federal government has paid nothing even though they are part of the Commission.  He said the Commission has the ability to raise its fees to cover more of its program costs.
Schuylkill Headwaters Sediment: Sen. Argall (R-Schuylkill) noted DEP has discontinued its dredging of coal waste sediment behind dams some years ago in the upper part of the Schuylkill River and asked if the private sector could be engaged in the effort.  Secretary Abruzzo said it would be difficult to provide incentives to the private sector, but would be glad to work with the Senator to develop some options.
On-Lot Septic Module Review: Sen. Baker thanked Secretary Abruzzo for his efforts to solve a problem with on-lot septic module reviews in special protection watersheds.
Riparian Buffer Legislation: Sen. Rafferty said he would like to work with DEP on legislation he is drafting to require 150 foot stream buffers throughout the state and Secretary Abruzzo said he would be happy to work with the Senator on the issue.
Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund: Sen. Rafferty noted Act 13 drilling impact fees support the HSCA Cleanup Fund, but wondered if it was adequate for the program.  Secretary Abruzzo said those fees are helpful, but when the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax is phased out completely he will have to work with the General Assembly to provide additional funding.
Waste Tire Piles: Sen. Argall asked what DEP’s plans are to remove the remaining waste tire piles around the state.  Secretary Abruzzo said they are continuing to work as they have in the past on waste tire pile removal and they are making progress.
Negative Wind Farm Impacts:  In response to a question from Sen. Wozniak, Secretary Abruzzo said he did not know of any negative impacts of wind farms, beyond the initial construction.
Vehicle Emissions Testing: Sen. Vogel (R-Beaver) said he would be continuing to work with DEP to eliminate vehicle emissions testing for his residents in Western PA because of the number of new, cleaner cars in the vehicle fleet has increased significantly.
Pittsburgh RVP Gasoline: Sen. Vogel also asked for a status on efforts to eliminate the requirement for low-RVP gasoline only in the Pittsburgh Region.  Secretary Abruzzo said DEP is working on a revised air emissions inventory in Western PA to see if there would be offsetting emission reductions from other sources so the state could continue to meet federal ozone pollution standards.
Regulatory Climate: Sen. Corman (R-Centre), Majority Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, commended Secretary Abruzzo for his efforts to improve the regulatory climate in the agency.
Regulatory Consistency/Permit Decision Guarantee: Sen. Solobay asked for an update on how the agency was ensuring consistency in permit decisions across the state and for an update on DEP’s Permit Decision Guarantee Program.  Secretary Abruzzo said he has to balance giving regional offices the flexibility to deal with unique circumstances, without those decisions causing problems in other areas of the state.  He reported the Decision Guarantee Program has eliminated the backlog of pending permits and has been successful in getting timely permit decisions by DEP staff in most cases.
Relationship With Environmental Groups: Sen. Farnese (D-Philadelphia) asked for an update on what DEP is doing to improve its relationship with environmental groups, noting Secretary Abruzzo’s written testimony before the Committee outlined some recent efforts.  Secretary Abruzzo said he invited representatives in to meet with him and let them know his philosophy is to increase the opportunities for groups to have input upfront in the decision-making process.  He said a good example was a tour of DEP’s laboratory by environmental groups to show them how water testing was handled and to answer questions.
IT Improvements: Sen. Vulakovich asked if the budget included any information technology updates.  In response, Jeff Logan said DEP just completed a project to digitized more of the records and permitting documents in the Oil and Gas Program which Logan said they hope to replicate in other areas.

Subscribe To Receive Updates:

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner