Auditor General: DEP struggles to keep up with booming shale industry

June 9th, 2015 2:38 pm

First Posted: 7/22/2014

The Pennsylvania Auditor General’s office on Tuesday released a report that shows the state Department of Environmental Protection has missed the mark in policing the natural gas industry.

“There are very dedicated hardworking people at DEP, but they are being hampered in doing their jobs by lack of resources — including staff and a modern information technology system — and inconsistent or failed implementation of department policies,” Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said in a release.

The report, which examined the department’s operations between 2009 and 2012, cites inconsistencies in how the department handled citizen complaints against operators and poor communication to the general populace during investigations.

In response, DEP Secretary E. Christopher Abruzzo said while he disagrees with the audit’s claim the department was complacent in addressing polluted-water complaints, the department agrees with — and already has implemented — many of the recommendations in other areas.

In his report conclusion, DePasquale, a Democrat, questioned whether the department’s inaction will demean public faith in it.

“Undoubtedly, these shortcomings have eroded the public’s trust that DEP will respond to citizen complaints and will consistently hold operators accountable for any impacts resulting from shale gas development and do so in a transparent manner,” DePasquale said.

The 93-page document makes recommendations for DEP to improve its communication through Web-based technology, add to its manpower and bolster its inspections framework to keep a better eye on the thousands of natural gas wells currently in operation in Pennsylvania.

Of the 15 complaint cases reviewed by the auditor’s staff, many of the operators chose to remedy contaminated water complaints on their own thus nixing the need for a departmental order, the DEP release said.

Some of those cases are still pending, and the operators in question have been fined more than $850,000 to date, the release said.

Since the audit time period, the department has activated a more efficient in-house complaint-tracking computer system, and tweaked the software to best fit specifics related to the oil and gas industry, Abruzzo said.

DePasquale countered the department’s response and said lack of documentation tarnishes the department’s credibility.

“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.

Funding issue

Kevin V. Lynn, communications director for the Pittston-based industry contractor Linde Corp., surmised that at the heart of the matter, the department needs more funding.

“I never got the feeling that they were doing short shift on their work,” Lynn said of the department. “As someone who works for a pipeline company, I want DEP to be as strong as it can be.”

It doesn’t appear the department has slipped in protecting the environment, rather it has failed, in some ways, to inform the public just how it is doing that, Lynn said.

Lynn, a former reporter, also co-hosts “The Shale Gas News with Kevin Lynn,” a Saturday-morning radio show on 94.3 FM The Talker.

Ultimately, the department’s tight controls on development make companies like Linde look better because it has higher standards to attain, he said.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, sided with DEP and called its current oversight “rigorous” and its inspection-to-well ratio “among the nation’s highest.”

“While our industry is squarely focused on continuous improvement, it’s clear that Pennsylvania’s regulatory regime is effectively meeting its objectives of protecting our environment,” coalition spokesman Patrick Creighton said in a prepared statement.

The debate over whether to levy a new production tax on drillers has been a major sticking point in the upcoming gubernatorial elections. While his employer is staunchly opposed to a new tax, Lynn believes it will help the state to effectively leverage the gas’ financial benefit.

“I think a severance tax is appropriate,” Lynn said. “But I don’t want it so high that it discourages drilling. My company’s in favor of continuing the work of the Marcellus region. They’re concerned that a severance tax could have a chilling effect on the drilling industry.”

Activist applause

A flurry of emails scattered across cyberspace following the audit’s release, many sent by environmentalist groups voicing their praise for the added scrutiny toward the department.

PennFuture, a statewide group with an office in downtown Wilkes-Barre, sent a statement that concluded the department needs more funding and “more cops on the beat,” PennFuture Vice President John Norbek said.

“While we commend the employees at DEP for their ongoing efforts to address the environmental impacts of Pennsylvania’s natural gas drilling boom, it’s clear that the department is not keeping up with its statutory role,” he said.

The audit indicates a clear priority imbalance at the state level, Norbeck said.

“When our citizens have have greater access to information about kennel inspections and restaurant inspections than they do well inspections, we have a problem,” Norbeck said.

Sam Bernhardt, a Pennsylvania organizer from the international group Food & Water Watch, said the audit points to greater need to cease the controversial drilling technique known as fracking altogether.

“(The review) of DEP confirms what scores of Pennsylvanians have experienced firsthand: the fracking industry has been allowed to run roughshod over our state, with grossly inadequate oversight magnifying the inherent dangers fracking brings,” Bernhardt said in the release. “The only tenable solution now to Pennsylvania’s fracking crisis is an indefinite moratorium on any new drilling.”