National crisis in fracking oversight

“There’s a national crisis in fracking oversight,” says Bruce Baizel, director of Earthworks’ oil and gas accountability project.

According to Baizel, a new report released last week “illustrates why many residents across the United States have given up on the idea that regulators can manage the oil and gas boom and are working so hard to stop fracking.”


The report by Earthworks titled Blackout in the Gas Patch: How Pennsylvania Residents are Left in the Dark on Health and Enforcement reveals how state government —

  • prioritizes development over enforcement
  • neglects oversight
  • fails to consider known threats
  • undermines regulation
  • prevents the public from getting information

While the report focuses on the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Baizel’s point is well taken that oversight of the shale gas industry isn’t only a Pennsylvania problem. The regulatory failures could easily apply to any other state and BLM lands where oil and gas drilling occurs. Pennsylvania has close to 80,000 active wells and Colorado has nearly 52,000.

The year-long study reviewed the DEP Marcellus Shale gas well drilling files. They documented and analyzed the permitting, oversight, and operational records of 135 wells and facilities in seven counties. Researchers conducted their own air and water testing at residences near drilling sites and found air and water contaminants consistent with gas development activity which have impacted the health of nearby residents.

The report was published two weeks after Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a highly critical performance audit of the DEP’s shale gas industry oversight, including the failure to consistently pursue citizen complaints about drinking water degradation, or issue enforcement orders for regulatory violations as state oil and gas law requires.

For the first time, environmental and health impacts of gas development have been connected with a lack of state oversight at well pads and facilities.

“Legitimate, well-funded oversight should be a prerequisite for deciding whether to permit fracking, not an afterthought,” said Nadia Steinzor, the report’s lead author. “Governor Corbett and DEP Secretary Abruzzo often say that the state has an exemplary regulatory program — but refuse to acknowledge that it’s not being implemented properly and that air, water and health are being harmed as a result. DEP’s limited resources make it impossible to keep up with required paperwork, let alone enforce the law and hold operators accountable.”

The 70-page report includes among its 25 detailed findings, these ten DEP failures — which are all too familiar to Colorado gas patch residents:

  • failed to consider the cumulative health impacts from shale gas development
  • health risks from emissions not considered
  • emissions information is incomplete
  • scope and density of gas development ignored
  • setbacks insufficient to address air impacts
  • residents bear a heavy burden of proof of water contamination
  • water contamination from gas and oil likely understated
  • only limited causes of water contamination are considered
  • poorly tracks, records and responds to citizen complaints
  • puts a higher premium on speedy permitting than enforcement

According to its analysis of DEP’s 2013 inspection report, Earthworks found that even though the number of well inspectors and inspections has increased, 66,326 of the state’s 79,693 active conventional and unconventional wells — or 83% — had never been inspected.

“The cases we reviewed, our testing and data analysis clearly shows that the DEP is unable to keep up with inspections or enforce its regulations and allows fixes over fines,” said Steinzor. “Regulations should create a deterrent system and hold operators accountable. How can the DEP assert that drilling is benign if it’s not doing the inspections?”

“The report concludes that the oversight of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry is occurring with three inherent contradictions at play [and these could also apply to Colorado]:

  1. DEP is charged with protecting the environment and the public, but is under strong political pressure to advance an industry that harms water, air and health.
  2. Steep budget cuts to DEP during a shale gas boom means the agency has to do more with less — which in effect has meant insufficient oversight and enforcement.
  3. As the number of people impacted by and concerned about the impacts of gas development grows, public access to information on the activities of both operators and DEP remains limited, inconsistent and restricted.”

Blackout in the Gas Patch also presents seven case studies using detailed timelines and maps. Earthworks plans to release one case study each week for the next six weeks to focus on the health impacts caused by rapidly expanding gas development.

The first one is a case study of Pam Judy and her family in Carmichaels, Greene County. They experienced health problems after a gas compressor station was erected 900 feet from their home which is surrounded by 35 gas wells, all within a one-mile radius.

Pam Judy in front of a compressor station. Photo by Mark Schmerling

Pam Judy in front of a compressor station. [Photo by Mark Schmerling]

Blackout Case Study 1 – Pam Judy

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  1. SWPA-EHP: a model for fracking states | - August 15, 2014

    […] Yes, Pennsylvania again. The same state featured in the Blackout in the Gaspatch report. […]

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