Shallow well producers decry DEP’s proposed new rules

Fracking friend and foe alike criticized the state Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed changes to gas and oil regulations at Monday night’s Environmental Quality Board hearing at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.

In a now-familiar refrain, environmentalists called the new rulemaking too lenient while those in the industry termed it overbearing. But last night, a new voice joined the conversation: Pennsylvania’s mom-and-pop shallow well producers.

The independent drillers of shallow, conventional wells are asking to be excluded from DEP’s new regulations, which they believe not only will put them out of business but also hurt the environment.

“The (proposed) regulations will destroy the conventional drilling industry. I can say without a doubt that these regulations will do more environmental harm than good,” Kline testified.

The roughly 7,000 conventional producers in the state employ more than 26,000 people, according to fourth generation oil producer Mark Kline. Conventional producers contribute some $700 million per year in state taxes and pay out more than $200 million to royalty owners annually, according to Kline.

“We should be valued,” Kline said.

Conventional and unconventional drilling are “entirely different animals,” according to Gary Hovis, president of Pennsylvania Independent Petroleum Producers.

Unconventional drilling in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations – popularly called “fracking” – is a relatively new form of energy extraction with a significantly greater impact to land and water resources than traditional conventional drilling, Hovis said.

DEP’s proposed rules were written with unconventional well operators in mind, many independent producers argued. Whereas a conventional well site is 2,500 square feet, an unconventional well site is 200,000 square feet, according to Hovis. A conventional well consumes 25,000 gallons of water, while an unconventional well consumes 4 million gallons, he said. Conventional well sites also generate significantly less truck traffic, Hovis said.

To hydraulically fracture a conventional well only requires one cement truck and two or three frack trucks, according to Weaver. The frack job on a conventional well takes less than one day, according to Weaver.

“A frack job on an unconventional well is hundreds of trucks for water, sand and such. One frack job is 20 pump trucks,” Weaver said.

An unconventional frack job could go on for weeks or months, according to Hovis.

Given conventional drilling’s relatively minor impact, fourth generation oil producer Glenn Weaver called DEP’s new rules “ridiculous.”

“The permit application process has become a nightmare,” Weaver said, pointing out that the once two-page permit document has ballooned to 17 pages.

The new rules would require all drillers – conventional and otherwise – to notify area municipalities when applying for a permit, according to Weaver.

“I understand the need for municipalities to be notified of traffic but smaller operations don’t need to be held up on our permits,” Weaver said.

In addition to permitting, other hot-button issues were waste management, groundwater protection, public health and the identification of abandoned wells.

The new rulemaking would require operators to identify the location of abandoned wells prior to drilling, a change criticized by both the environmental and energy sectors.

“Identifying these wells may be something we can work with DEP on but not (to the extent) currently proposed,” WPX Energy’s Scott Miller said.

Laurie Barr, of Save Our Streams, wanted DEP to enhance the abandoned well identification survey area to greater than the currently proposed 1,000 feet.

DEP’s new rules would require operators to restore or replace private water supplies to state Safe Drinking Act standards after completion of a well – a proposal with which Miller took issue. Pennsylvania’s private water wells are notoriously underregulated and many are naturally contaminated by iron, magnesium or methane, according to Miller.

“It’s unreasonable to restore the private water supply to better standards than existed prior to drilling,” Miller said.

But Barr disagreed.

“The presumption of liability should always reside with the industry,” Barr said.