35 minutes.

Yes, that is all it takes to receive a Marcellus Shale Gas Well permit from Pennsylvania Environmental Regulators. Not only that, but if you plan to drill near a high-quality stream or river; you won’t get any additional scrutiny. This came from PA DEP Regulators who testified recently behind closed doors during a hearing about a permit that was issued for an exploratory well less than a half mile from the Delaware River, and 300 yards from a pristine stream in Northeastern PA.

Why does this happen, you ask? PA DEP staffers indicate they are overburdened dealing with this ‘gold rush fever’ boom to tap the lucrative Marcellus Shale in PA. The rush to get wells permitted and drilling started is motivated simply by greed–and not on the part of the State; as they’re not taxing the drilling as other states are. The simple fact is that out of over seven thousand well permits that have been applied for; only 31 have been rejected. That seems to be an extraordinarily low number but during testimony, the regulators revealed:

  • potential impacts on high quality watersheds are not considered; rather than determining that wells meet the minimum setbacks.
  • municipal or regional zoning laws are not considered during the permit process
  • no consideration is given to wide-scale development of concentrated gas wells in any area
  • There appears be  a fuzzy understanding of laws governing the process. One upervisor was unable to define the requirements of a key anti-degradation regulation requiring that  pristine waterways “shall be maintained and protected,” while a geologist said he didn’t know that streams and rivers that are legally designated as “high quality” or of  “exceptional value” were entitled to an extra layer of protection.
  • This same geologist could not define what a  ‘high quality waterway’ was nor what that meant in terms of the level of protection these same waterways have  under the law. He  also testified that he was the principal geologist responsible for performing the substantive technical analysis of the well permits.

This overburdening results from the fact that PA-DEP is woefully understaffed for the permitting process. Under the law, they have 45 days to review and grant or deny the permits. If they fail to achieve this; it is DEP policy to refund the application fee–which varies from $900-$3000, depending on well depth. While staffing for DEP has increased from 88 in 2008 to 202 in 2010, and many of these are in the oil and gas permitting group, the staff is still overburdened.

The State of PA needs to update their 25-year old antiquated oil and gas law and also place oil and gas wells out of the exemption that most receive under the law. This exemption allows most wells to be drilled close to the pristine waterways that grace the northern tier counties.

Action needs to be taken to halt this process; this is akin the recently noted Air Traffic Controllers falling asleep in the towers; our waterways are in danger and are crying for us to help.

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