A government watchdog in Pennsylvania blasted the performance of state’s oil and gas regulator, saying that rapid development in the Marcellus shale play had outpaced the ability of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to police drilling activity.
"It is almost like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose," Pennsylvania auditor general Eugene DePasquale said when announcing the report on Wednesday. "There is no question that DEP needs help and soon to protect clean water."
The DEP responded that the audit period - from 2009 through 2012 – did not capture major updates to Pennsylvania drilling regulations and DEP policies.
"As we've explained to the auditors, because the report focused on the time period up until the end of 2012, most of this audit reflects how our oil and gas programme formerly operated, not how the programme currently functions," DEP secretary Christopher Abruzzo said.
A March 2013 audit by non-profit group State Review of Oil & Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (Stronger), which has members from industry, government and environmental groups, "found our programme to be proficient and ready to address the increase of oil and gas operations in Pennsylvania", Abruzzo said, adding that the group specifically praised the state's hydraulic fracturing and well construction regulations.
In total, the auditor general flagged eight deficiencies with the DEP's performance, primarily singling out the way DEP documents and responds to complaints from citizens, difficulties the public has in accessing state data and uncertainty over its well-inspection programme.
In particular, the auditor general pointed to the DEP’s track record of not ensuring that operators who might have contaminated drinking water supplies follow through with restoring or replacing those water sources.
"When DEP does not take a formal, documented action against a well operator who has contaminated a water supply, the agency loses credibility as a regulator and is not fully accountable to the public," DePasquale said.
In a response, DEP claimed that many operators had already voluntarily addressed the water problems, so no official disciplinary action was needed.
DePasquale's report was also highly critical of the DEP inspection system, saying the regulator is vague about when inspections are required and does not post all the required information from inspections to its website. Those reports were also found to have errors in key fields more than 25% of the time.
"It is unfathomable to us that for a basic responsibility of DEP - inspecting oil and gas facilities – little criteria exists for when those inspections should occur," DePasquale said. "Until DEP updates its out-of-date inspection policies, to include mandated inspections at specific critical drilling stages and during the life of the well, it will be nearly impossible to measure DEP's performance in conducting this very basic responsibility to protect the environment."
The auditor general's office issued 29 recommendations to reform DEP based on the audit, including measures to add inspection staff, develop better public access to information and better track public complaints.
"Shale gas development offers significant benefits to our commonwealth and our nation, but these benefits cannot come at the expense of the public's trust, health, and well-being," DePasquale said.
Despite Abruzzo's disagreement with the report's findings, he said DEP supports most of the recommendations and said many are already being implemented but were not in place at the time of the audit.
"Throughout the audit period until the present, DEP's oil and gas programme has made great strides improving the effectiveness of its regulatory efforts and its transparency to the public," he said in a response.