Tuesday, May 25, 2021

AG Shapiro, Senate Democrats Announce Legislation To Address Issues Raised In Grand Jury Report On Natural Gas Fracking

On May 25, Attorney General Josh Shapiro and members of the Senate Democratic Caucus announced a package of bills aimed at increasing transparency, oversight and the overall safe management of gas drilling operations in the fracking industry.

The package of legislation addresses recommendations made in Pennsylvania’s 43rd Statewide Investigating Grand Jury report on the unconventional oil and gas industry.  Read more here.

[Note: The language for many of the bills mentioned in this announcement are not yet available.]

The report was a result of a two-year investigation that included personal testimony from 70 households across the Commonwealth and dozens of current and former state employees. 

Findings detailed disturbing health impacts of Pennsylvania fracking operations on children, homeowners and livestock that live within proximity of drilling sites. Multiple families close to wells or other industrial sites described unexplained rashes, sudden nosebleeds, and respiratory issues.

“Last year, the Grand Jurors called on Pennsylvania to make concrete changes to reduce the health and safety risks on a fracking industry left unchecked by regulators impacting families across Pennsylvania. It is common sense to ensure fracking isn’t happening next to a school or too close to someone’s home. It is common sense for companies to be transparent about the chemicals they are using near the water supplies of homes,” said Attorney General Josh Shapiro. “I want to thank Senators Santarsiero, Collett, Muth, Sabatina and Comitta for their work on these reforms—my office is committed to making sure Pennsylvanians are protected against powerful interests.”

[Note: To say the unconventional drilling industry was left “unchecked by regulators” does not accurately describe the fact the Department of Environmental Protection must operate within the boundaries of the laws it is given to administer by the General Assembly, in this case Act 13 of 2012.

[Each of the recommendations in this announcement to strengthen Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Management Program identifies a weakness in the statutes used by DEP to regulate unconventional and conventional oil and gas drilling given to them by the General Assembly.

[DEP has--  year after year-- increased the number of inspections it does of oil and gas operations, has collected record fines and penalties for violations and promoted innovations like frack water recycling and doing away with water impoundments at unconventional drilling operations that have set national and international best management practices.  Read more in DEP’s last annual program report.

[DEP has done these things in spite of the fact DEP’s Oil and Gas Management Program cannot fill an estimated 40 positions-- nearly 18 percent of its staff- out of a complement of 226 due to a reduction in revenue from oil and gas drilling permit fees earmarked to fund the program.

[These are the staff responsible for enforcing oil and gas drilling-related regulations, including the proper disposal of drilling wastewater, for example.

[DEP reported in December it expects a 70 percent decline in revenue from the permit fees this year because of the general downturn in the natural gas industry over the last two years primarily due to natural gas prices.  Yet, new fee increases, opposed by many in the General Assembly, were just effective on August 1, 2020.  Read more here.

[This is not to say there isn’t room for improvement because there surely is in any state program, but they still have to operate within the laws they are given.

[However, the General Assembly has not given DEP many of the tools it needs to address the issues raised in this announcement-- like full cost bonding and adequate water supply replacement language-- and has tried to undercut the agency’s ability to regulate the conventional oil and gas industry which has more than twice the violations of the unconventional industry.  Read more here.

[Until Senate and House members can fix these problems with new law, they will continue.]

The package of bills sponsored by Senate Democrats aim to usher in reforms that were specifically recommended by the Grand Jury report. The eight recommendations included:

1. Expanding no-drill zones in Pennsylvania from the required 500 feet to 2,500 feet;

2. Requiring fracking companies to publicly disclose all chemicals used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing before they are used on-site;

3. Requiring the regulation of gathering lines, used to transport unconventional gas hundreds of miles;

4. Adding up all sources of air pollution in a given area to accurately assess air quality;

5. Requiring safer transport of the contaminated waste created from fracking sites;

6. Conducting a comprehensive health response to the effects of living near unconventional drilling sites;

7. Limiting the ability of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection employees to be employed in the private sector immediately after leaving the Department;

8. Allowing the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General original criminal jurisdiction over unconventional oil and gas companies.

Senators Santarsiero, Collett, Muth, Sabatina and Comitta will sponsor and co-sponsor bills that directly respond to the recommendations and the urgent need for action.

“Under this package of bills, citizens and others could report potential environmental crimes directly to the Attorney General’s office for investigation without having to go through other agencies first,” said Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks), adding “This would speed up the process for investigations and convictions for environmental crimes and make it clear to potential polluters that damaging our land and water will be met with real consequences. Pennsylvanians have a constitutional right to clean air, pure water and the protection of the Commonwealth’s natural resources.  As a former Chief Deputy Attorney General for Environmental Protection in Pennsylvania, I have firsthand experience in how cumbersome, time consuming, and counter-productive the current process can be. It is time we ensure accurate resources exist to protect the constitutional right of all Pennsylvanians to clean air and pure water.”

“SB 653 (not yet online) is a worker and public safety issue,” Sen. John Sabatina (D-Philadelphia) said. “When first responders show up to an accident scene, they need to quickly identify the substance in a spill. We have to keep truck drivers, first responders and drivers in Pennsylvania safe.”

“This package of bills should’ve been enacted before a single permit was approved by the DEP,” said Sen. Katie Muth (D-Chester). “For over ten 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. The recommendations included in report one of the 43rd Statewide Investigative Grand Jury Report are commonsense, proactive measures that will increase transparency about the hydraulic fracturing process. It’s time for state government to protect the people and our natural resources instead of protecting corporate polluters who only care about profits, even if it means harming people and the planet.”

“In my district, where PFAS contamination levels have been among the highest in the nation, water quality is not something we take for granted,” said Sen. Maria Collett (D-Bucks). “This urgent legislation will allow the Attorney General to take action against polluters and allow us to stop using state dollars – your dollars – to remediate hazards like these across the Commonwealth.”

“The health effects from industry activity are “magnified by proximity”, a fact that is highlighted in Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s Grand Jury report,” said Sen. Santarsiero.  “We must protect our communities and keep families safe in their homes by increasing the distance unconventional gas drilling operations must be from buildings and water supplies.”

“The Attorney General’s report showed that natural gas drilling operations can have serious impacts on our health, safety, and well-being and those impacts are amplified by proximity. Drilling operations don’t belong in the middle of our neighborhoods or near schools, hospitals, or our water resources,” Sen. Carolyn Comitta (D-Chester) said. “It’s time to enact safer setbacks to better protect Pennsylvania families, children, and communities from the potential for the significant, negative health impacts associated with fracking.”

Industry Reaction

Marcellus Shale Coalition president David Callahan issued this statement on the announcement--“For the tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians who work hard each day to safely provide the clean American natural gas that powers our communities, schools, hospitals, local businesses and the manufacturing sector, there’s no higher priority than protecting the environment and public health. 

“Despite what some suggest, Pennsylvania’s regulations are world-class, focused at every step of the way – with our industry’s strong support – on ensuring safe natural gas development and transportation. 

“The unconventional gas industry has long-supported efforts to ensure DEP has the resources it needs to carry out its duties effectively, transparently disclose chemical use prior to becoming law, adhere to stricter setback requirements and drive innovative water recycling practices. 

“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.”

Legislative Reaction

Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, had this reaction to the announcement--

“Governor Wolf’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said it best: The 43rd Statewide Investigating Grand Jury Report announced last year is ‘factually and legally inaccurate,’ and a ‘disservice to the citizens’ of Pennsylvania.

“Today’s performance for the media is part of the ongoing effort to peddle misinformation and ignore the high standards used in the Commonwealth to regulate natural gas development.

“Pennsylvania’s standards are among the most protective in the nation. Act 13 of 2012 raised over 40 environmental standards including appropriate handling of waste and protecting water resources. Pennsylvania’s Impact Tax has provided over $100 million to DEP and county conservation districts to enforce our environmental standards.

“To protect communities, we have enacted new pipeline safety standards and emergency response requirements all while guiding billions of dollars in investment to Pennsylvania, providing countless jobs for local residents, ensuring significant energy savings for consumers and improving air quality for all.

“Pennsylvania is the second largest producer of natural gas in the United States and one of largest producers in the world. And yet, the Wolf administration has paid lip service at best to the importance of this multi-billion-dollar industry to the Commonwealth. From day one, the administration has attempted to degrade these employers, who do not rely on government handouts, with a severance tax. This administration has done everything in its power to regulate and restrict the industry into oblivion.  In 2019, 700 wells were drilled in Pennsylvania. At the same time, there were 19,485 inspections of the industry. What other employer in Pennsylvania has regulators on its doorstep that many times in a year?

“As the industry continues to survive on the world stage, the response is to use the grand jury process to rehash claims, that have been repudiated years ago.  Many of these claims were actually rejected in Pennsylvania court cases.  Talk about ‘black sludge water’ went out the window with Yoko Ono’s aborted bus trip on the ice in 2009.

“It is absolutely embarrassing for a state, which is a world leader in regulation and safety to have such a short sighted and myopic view of an industry of such international importance. Their sentiment – ‘Let’s drive these people out of the state, now.  We don’t want them.’ ”


The Better Path Coalition issued this statement on the announcement by Attorney General Shapiro and Senate Democrats--

“A week after Article 1, Section 27 turned 50, Attorney  General Josh Shapiro and Democratic legislators invoked the amendment as they laid out legislative proposals to address the recommendations made by the 43rd Statewide Grand Jury in its report last June that concluded that the government has not protected Pennsylvanians from fracking. 

“The Better Path Coalition appreciates efforts to address the important issues the Grand Jury raised, but cautions that it is not correct to suggest, as Attorney General Shapiro did, that fracking can be done safely.

“As the Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction) has concluded, “Our examination uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health directly and without imperiling climate stability upon which public health depends.”

“Since first announcing the Grand Jury report, Attorney General Shapiro has referred to nosebleeds suffered by some Pennsylvania children living in proximity of fracking. Prevalence of nosebleeds was mentioned during today’s press conference once again. Peer-reviewed research has linked fracking to many devastating illnesses, diseases, and conditions. 

“Young people in four counties in southwestern Pennsylvania have been diagnosed with rare cancers. The health impacts go far beyond nosebleeds. No amount of legislation is sufficient to safeguard the public and uphold the protections guaranteed in Article 1, Section 27.

“It is dangerous to suggest that a package of bills will make fracking safe when there is nothing in the science that supports that conclusion and when even the best attempts to address on-the-ground impacts will not address the climate impacts of fracking.”

PennFuture issued the statement on the proposals--

“PennFuture applauds the package of legislation announced today that acts upon the Attorney General’s sorely-needed recommendations for change from the grand jury report issued last summer,” said PennFuture President and CEO Jacquelyn Bonomo. “There has been an enormous gap for years between our constitutional guarantees, and laws and regulations in place to protect or enforce those guarantees. 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.”

The Delaware RiverKeeper Network issued these statements on the legislative proposals--

“Attorney General Josh Shapiro has taken seriously his obligation to protect the environmental rights of the people of Pennsylvania promised by Article 1 Section 27.  The Grand Jury investigation documenting the many ways Pennsylvania government has failed to protect Pennsylvanians from the devastating consequences of fracking was an important first step. Today’s announcement of increased protections is an important second step and my organization looks forward to thoroughly reviewing and vetting the legislative proposals announced today.  But there is a critical step three that is needed immediately, we need a moratorium on any new fracking permits while the proposed legislative proposals advance.  Pennsylvania’s people and environments are being impacted by irreversible and unacceptable harm from fracking. Now that we have clear recognition that the government has failed to fully and fairly protect the people and environments of Pennsylvania and failed to fulfill the constitutional obligations in Article 1 Section 27 to protect our environmental rights and natural resources, it is clear that a moratorium preventing the further expansion and proliferation of the fracking industry is what is constitutionally, legally and morally required,” said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper and leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

“Reform is very much needed in order to prevent the ruinous impacts of fracking on people and the environment here in Pennsylvania.  Senator Muth was spot on when she said that Pennsylvania is a contaminated mess. While it is good to hear that the Pennsylvania legislature and Attorney General’s office is dedicated to advance legislation that will increase protections, every day damage to the health, safety, and environments of our Pennsylvania communities continues and grows; every new permit issued for a new or expanding well site increases and exacerbates the devastating harm.  As a result, while the legislative proposals are developed and advance through the often long and arduous legislative process, there must be a moratorium on permits to stop the bleeding,” said Tracy Carluccio, Deputy Director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.


Rachel McDevitt: PA Senate Democrats Push For Greater Accountability From Natural Gas Drilling Industry

Related Articles:

-- AG Shapiro: Grand Jury Finds Pennsylvania Failed To Protect Citizens During Natural Gas Fracking Boom

[Posted: May 25, 2021]  PA Environment Digest

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