Tuesday, May 18, 2010

New gas drilling regulations aimed at protecting waters

By Rick Stouffer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The state Environmental Quality Board yesterday gave its approval of new rules to protect water resources statewide from pollution caused by booming Marcellus shale-related natural gas drilling.

Rules covering removal of dissolved solids in water and erosion go to House and Senate environmental committees and the Independent Regulatory Review Commission for a 30-day review. A rule on well drilling goes to the state attorney general for review, then will be published for public comment.

One measure would protect water resources from new sources of dissolved solids, which include salts, organic matter and other materials. Dissolved solids are present in the water used to fracture underground rock to free trapped natural gas.

With million of gallons of the wastewater coming to the surface from each well drilled, the Environmental Quality Board recommended the fluid be treated before being returned to streams and other bodies of water. About 3,400 Marcellus shale drilling permits have been granted in Pennsylvania, with nearly 1,400 wells drilled.

By about 2014, Marcellus shale drilling could be providing 10 percent of the nation's entire natural gas production, officials say.

"Drilling wastewater contains levels (of dissolved solids) that are thousands of times more harmful to aquatic life than discharges from other industries," state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger said in a statement. "Without imposing limits on this pollution, treatment costs for this wastewater are passed along to downstream industries and municipal ratepayers." Hanger is chairman of the quality board.

The board recommended updating requirements for the drilling, casing, cementing, testing, monitoring and plugging of oil and natural gas wells to minimize natural gas migration, a process in which oil and gas migrates from a well and can accumulate in nearby structures or in water supplies.

The new rules will require well operators to conduct quarterly inspections of all wells and report the results to the state. (Breathtaking Stupidity!)

A third recommendation covers erosion and sediment control, establishing 150-foot zones around what's known as high-value water sources for activity that disturbs the ground, such as natural gas drilling.

One member of the board voted against the zones. Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Venango County, believes the recommendation is in violation of federal law, said White's spokesman Patrick Henderson.

Marcellus shale natural gas drilling representatives generally are in agreement with the recommendations.

"Range shares the desire of the commonwealth to responsibly develop the Marcellus shale," said Ray Walker, senior vice president with Range Resources Corp., one of the most active Marcellus shale drillers. "We're proud to have pioneered water reuse and recycling in Pennsylvania, and we remain committed to working with the DEP and other engaged stakeholders in the regulatory process."