Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro is taking aim at the state’s oil and gas industry. As promised in his 2016 campaign, now-Attorney General Shapiro is following through on promises to “hold oil and gas companies criminally liable” for any offenses committed during unconventional natural gas development in Pennsylvania. Environmental crimes typically include air pollution, improper dumping of hazardous materials, groundwater pollution, and any other violation of the state’s environmental regulations.
The Attorney General’s efforts to hold companies accountable began with an investigatory grand jury convened to explore any “environmental crimes” that may have been committed. The Attorney General’s actions come amidst a host of incidents across the Commonwealth caused by companies engaged in upstream and midstream development.
Attorney General Shapiro is not the first in Pennsylvania’s government to prosecute the industry. XTO Energy, a natural gas company, was charged by former AG Kathleen Kane after a frack wastewater spill poured into the Susquehanna River. XTO was subsequently ordered to pay $400,000 in fines. Sunoco’s Mariner East projects have also been investigated.
In 2018, the PA Department of Environmental Protection ordered Sunoco to halt all Mariner East project construction after finding “egregious and willful” regulatory violations including water contamination, illegal construction methods, and operating in restricted areas. Sunoco and parent company, Energy Transfer LP, may also be included in the Attorney General’s grand jury investigation, as he is already assisting prosecutors in Delaware County investigate the environmental problems related to the Mariner East pipelines.
AG Shapiro may be better equipped than state regulators in holding the industry accountable thanks to his subpoena powers. Many citizens who have settled with companies in the industry have been required to sign non-disclosure agreements, which bars them from speaking to regulators. Being able to subpoena anyone related to any possible environmental crimes opens opportunities to speak with those previously forbade by contract to speak publicly about the industry and could uncover incriminating information.
It appears oil and gas companies operating in the Commonwealth may now face inquiries not only from the DEP but also the Attorney General’s Office, which would dramatically increase regulatory oversight. At this time, it is unclear how the industry will respond.
For citizens, the Attorney General’s involvement could provide an additional outlet for them to express their concerns about public health, safety, and welfare amidst unconventional natural gas development as well as give a voice to those who have signed non-disclosure agreements in the past.