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Wolf Vetoes Bill to Loosen Regulations on Conventional Gas Drillers

Legislation to relax Pennsylvania laws governing conventional oil and gas drillers was recently passed by the state Senate, but vetoed last week by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Republican legislators have for years argued that conventional drillers should face less stringent requirements than unconventional drillers. Conventional drilling, which has taken place in Pennsylvania for more than 100 years, involves wells that are drilled vertically into a reservoir of oil or gas, while unconventional development uses horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to create cracks in deeper shale layers to release trapped gas.

Unconventional wells are much deeper, use large amounts of water and chemicals under high pressure and are much more expensive than conventional wells, which are usually drilled by smaller companies.

The legislation, Senate Bill 790, was passed by the state House in May and the Senate approved it on Nov. 17. It was amended from the original bill to lower the requirements for reporting of spills for both oil and wastewater, or brine, to the Department of Environmental Protection. In addition, a provision in the original will that would have allowed for spreading of brine on dirt roads to suppress dust was removed. Opponents had argued that drilling wastewater can contain salt, metals and radioactive particles.

In his veto message, Wolf said that “while this legislation attempts to address the distinct challenges associated with the conventional oil and gas industry, it does so in a manner that does not adequately protect the environment and the public health and safety of the citizens of the Commonwealth, and would contribute to a legacy of environmental degradation.” He said the state Department of Environmental Protection has tried to work with legislators to develop requirements for conventional drillers but has not had cooperation.

“At a time when the conventional industry is still incurring violations at three to four times the rate of the unconventional industry, the legislation is completely unacceptable,” it continued.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council, joined by dozens of environmental, conservation, and recreation groups, sent a letter urging a Wolf veto. The letter cited concerns about water pollution, limits on spill reporting, and weakened plugging and remediation standards.

In 2019, the DEP issued permits for 1,475 unconventional wells, but just 230 conventional wells.

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