Wolf says despite GOP compromise, drilling bill still poses too much environmental risk

Republicans are pushing for looser regulations on conventional oil and gas drillers, who generally run small operations and work with relatively shallow wells.

A conventional drilling site is prepared in Butler County, Pennsylvania in the winter of 2014. (Courtesy of Pennsylvania DEP)

A conventional drilling site is prepared in Butler County, Pennsylvania in the winter of 2014. (Courtesy of Pennsylvania DEP)

State House and Senate lawmakers appear poised to pass a bill that would loosen some of the laws that govern certain oil and gas drillers.

But despite a significant amendment intended to win over skeptical Democrats, Governor Tom Wolf and others say the measure still allows too much pollution.

The legislation, SB 790, is sponsored by GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. It would give conventional oil and gas drillers looser environmental standards than the ones the state imposes on unconventional operators.

Conventional drillers tend to be smaller companies that drill shallower wells. They’ve long complained they shouldn’t be subject to the same rules as unconventional drillers, which are generally major corporations extracting oil and gas from the Marcellus Shale.

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Among other things, the bill would allow conventional operators to spill more drilling wastewater — often referred to as brine — without notifying the Department of Environmental Protection, and likewise change the standards for crude oil spills.

2018 Penn State study found that brine can contain contaminants like radium, a radioactive element and known carcinogen, “often many times above drinking water standards.” It also found that the water has the potential to leach metals, salts and radioactive material into surface or groundwater, soil and air.

An amendment, added Monday in the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, softened the bill somewhat, reducing the amounts of oil and ​brine it would allow conventional drillers to spill before reporting it — from five to two barrels of oil, and from 15 to five barrels of brine.

It also banned the use of wastewater to suppress dust on dirt roads — the practice highlighted in Penn State’s study.

Republicans, like Butler County’s Daryl Metcalfe, said they compromised because they’re worried conventional drillers are struggling.

“This is an issue that we’ve been working on,” he said. “I mean, how long do you expect companies to exist when they’re being overregulated to the point of losing the people and resources that they actually need to continue to have a business?”

Several Democrats in Monday’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee hearing said they agree conventional and unconventional drillers require distinct rules.

Delaware County Democrat Greg Vitali, who serves as the committee’s minority chair, noted that he and others have traveled to well sites across the state to see the differences for themselves.

But, he maintained, the bill needs work.

“It doesn’t address the rollback of water supply protection [or] the avoidance of erosion and sediment control,” Vitali said. “There’s still a weakened protection for public resources [and it] still allows more wells to go unreported.”

The bill ultimately passed the committee in a near party-line vote, with one Democrat in support.

It already passed the Senate, and Metcalfe said he is confident the chamber would agree to the amended version.

Then, however, it would have to get through the governor.

JJ Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf, said he is still “open to finding a legislative solution” but would veto the current iteration of the bill.

“This bill still poses an undeniable risk to the health and safety of our citizens, the environment, and our public resources,” Abbott wrote in a statement.

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