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Shale Commission Recommends PUC Oversight in Class 1 Areas

 

By D.C. Koviack

Building on newer, tougher regulations in an updated Pennsylvania Code that went into effect in February of this year, Gov. Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission (MSAC) issued a long list of recommendations last Friday intended to refine and strengthen the statutory and regulatory framework, which deals with the natural gas drilling industry in the Marcellus Shale region.

While there are many thoughtful and enlightened recommendations that were crafted by MSAC, one of the most important ones for rural Wyoming, Bradford, Sullivan and Susquehanna Counties is the one concerning pipeline safety in Class 1 areas. Class 1 areas are defined by federal statute as being those regions having 10 or fewer homes within an area a mile long and 220 yards on either side of a proposed pipeline. That defines most of the four counties mentioned, with the exception of boroughs and county seats.

Until the MSAC’s recommendation last week that the Pennsylvania Utility Commission (PUC) be given oversight of gas transportation and gathering pipelines in Class 1 areas, Class 1 had no oversight and Pennsylvania residents living in such areas had no protection. Pipeline companies had free rein with regard to where pipelines could be placed, what materials would be used, and what, if any, safety measures would be taken. The MSAC’s recommendations, while not law—yet—change all of that.

Requiring PUC oversight including design, construction and installation of gathering and transport pipelines elevates residents of Class 1 areas to the status enjoyed by residents of more populated and built up regions of the Commonwealth (Classes 2, 3 and 4), and means that the concerns of all citizens, whether rural or urban, are of equal importance. The recommendations, which represent the first major update of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act in nearly 30 years, together form a comprehensive strategy for responsible gas drilling in the state. In addition to the Class 1 upgrade, the recommendations call for stronger regulations for drilling, including an increase in the bonding requirement; longer setbacks; an extension of presumed liability of operators and numerous disclosure and other information sharing directives. Tougher penalties for violators—$50,000 for a civil violation and $2,000 daily penalties for infractions—are also recommended.

MSAC advised the creation of a streamlined, more efficient permitting process, which would better coordinate the agencies involved in permitting and enable drilling companies to more reliably fulfill their permitting requirements. MSAC advised the creation of more jobs for PA residents entering the Marcellus Shale gas drilling industry, as well as the improvement of existing infrastructure. The commission recommended that public health protections be installed and that public safety be promoted. Specifically, MSAC advised that emergency responders receive additional directed training, and urged the formation of state, regional and county task forces to handle any incidents.

In addition to the protection of its citizens, the protection of PA’s natural resources was recommended, as well as various ways to assist communities dealing with the impact from the drilling industry. They include environmental remediation, public health evaluation and response, increased social services, improved infrastructure and oversight of natural resources. Now that the MSAC’s recommendations have been published, there are a number of ways in which the strategies can be implemented.

First, Gov. Corbett has the power to create Executive Orders on some, if not all, of the commission recommendations. Some fall within the purview of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and could be adopted directly by them. Others will need to be addressed legislatively; according to Wyoming County’s Community, Municipal and Environmental Liaison Emily Krafjack, State Senator Lisa Baker is working on Class 1 Pipeline Safety Legislation for the upcoming autumn session of the Senate.

Many of MSAC’s points integrate with the new requirements of the PA Code/25 Chapter 78. Already in place, these establish stricter requirements and reporting schedules for well casings and wells, broaden the terms under which operators can be compelled to restore or replace water supplies if drilling activity contaminates or diminishes them, and steps up both discovery and mitigation of the gas migration problems. Chapter 78 also requires operators to disclose the chemical additives used at any point in the “fracking” process, and their hazardous constituents, on a well by well basis. Additionally, the current code regulates water withdrawal, air quality and infrastructure.

Calling the Marcellus Shale drilling industry an “economic cornerstone” of PA’s recovery from the recession, Gov. Corbett recognized both the potential value of the industry as well as the confusing tangle of regulations, jurisdictions and communications surrounding it. He created the MSAC, made up of environmentalists, government officials, industry representatives, conserva-tionists and energy specialists in order to have a path clearly mapped for the industry’s future, as well as the Commonwealth’s best interests.

Public comment on the topics addressed by the MSAC were welcomed although a relatively small percentage of PA residents sent in their concerns. The MSAC was specifically charged with examining and recommending efforts to mitigate drilling’s environ-mental impact, promote market development of the industry, train a workforce, enhance emergency response, mitigate uncompensated local impacts, monitor and analyze public health and effectively and responsibly deploy infrastructure.

The Marcellus Shale is defined as “Devonian black” shale deposited about two miles under the earth over a 1.5 million year period starting about 389 million years ago. The shale bed is about 700 feet thick on average. Its black color signifies a relatively high percentage of organic matter, more than 10 percent; most other shale is gray or dun colored and has about two percent organic matter in it. Three hundred eighty-nine million years ago, what is today the northeastern United States was a shallow basin that tilted downward toward what is now the Atlantic Ocean. Laurentia (which became North America) and Gondwana (which became Africa and South America fused into one land mass) were at this time separated by an ocean.

Organic matter, such as algae from an interior seaway, collected in the shallow basin and was trapped when continental drift caused the two mega continents to collide. This collision buried the organic matter under a blanket of sedimentary rock made up of limestone, dolomite, sandstone, siltstone and shale; these rocks were shed from the Acadia Mountain Chain during the collision. The new continent made up of Laurentia and Gondwana is called Pangea by geologists, but after the collision that created this continent, Gondwana continued to pivot clockwise, pushing into Laurentia and creating the Appalachian Mountains.

This process is known as the Alleghenian Orogeny. High temperatures deep beneath the earth where the organic matter was trapped preserved the fatty lipids and n-paraffins in the organics and converted them by polymerization to long chain organic compounds called kerogen. Continuing high temperatures cracked the kerogen, resulting in petroleum and natural gas pockets within the rock. It is this cracking that the modern Marcellus Shale gas drilling industry mimics with its “fracking” and that enables the extraction of the natural gas deposits laid down nearly a quarter of a billion years ago.

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