State seen to hinder gas drilling

Industry reps cite permitting delays; DEP head says issues to be resolved.

DALLAS TWP. – Representatives from every aspect of the state’s burgeoning natural-gas drilling industry met on Tuesday and, though differing on specifics, emphasized that Pennsylvanians stand upon a multibillion-dollar windfall, but only if the state streamlines its permitting process.

The hearing at Misericordia University was organized by the state Senate Republicans’ policy committee to identify potential problems with drilling the Marcellus Shale about a mile underground, but the senators instead were told that many of the problems lie with the state itself.

“Fundamentally, what the industry has said to us is, ‘We need to know what the rules are,’” said Tom Beauduy, the deputy director of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. The commission oversees water removal from the river basin.

Industry representatives were dire with their characterizations. The industry is experiencing “permitting delays unlike we have ever seen in any other state,” said Wendy Straatmann, president of Ohio-based Exco-North Coast Energy Inc. “Why would I spend so much of our company’s time and resources when I can go to some other state and use the gas and oil manual and follow the regulations?”

Ray Walker, a vice president with Texas-based Range Resources Corp., agreed that an inclusive regulations manual would help companies “put our money into protecting the environment and not paperwork.” He noted that smaller companies are considering drilling here, but won’t if the permitting process remains slow and taxes increase. That could keep development slow, he said.

That’s a prospect that few at the hearing wanted. John Hanger, the acting secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, assured that his agency was “working to make sure that gas can be produced and water protected.” Part of the lag has come from a dearth of disposal options for the fluids used to hydraulically fracture the rock, and Hanger said his favored alternative was to find ways for the companies to simply inject them underground.

DEP would need to increase its regulatory force to keep up with the permitting and inspections demand predicted based on industry desires, he said, noting the department has recently requested substantially increasing its well-permitting fees.

Still the Republican senators felt DEP is clamping down too tightly. “When I ran for Senate, I was mad at the state for over-regulating my industry,” said Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Venango County, who had worked for an oil corporation. “I think we’re heading down that road again.”

William Brackett, the managing editor of a newsletter that reports on the Barnett Shale, said gas drilling there “is a prime reason the north Texas economy has only caught a cold and not the flu.”

John Hanger, acting DEP secretary, said part of the lag has come from a dearth of disposal options for the fluids used to hydraulically fracture the rock.

Copyright: Times Leader