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December 03, 2016
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Interdisciplinary and cross-media huh?

Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) sent out a press release touting a new reorganization initiative. Also last week, the Pike County Conservation District (PCCD) discussed the problems related to the oversight and enforcement of natural gas pipeline construction. These two events, in two very different ways, cast light on what is becoming an increasingly critical question in our area: are the bodies charged with ensuring the viability of our habitat willing and able to do what is necessary to see that it is protected from degradation?

Perusing the DEP press release to determine what the reorganization might actually mean for the department’s eponymous mission, i.e. protecting the environment, we found ourselves occasionally baffled, as in learning that the “interdisciplinary and cross-media approach to environmental regulation” was going to be boosted. (We asked DEP about it, and were told it means that programs within the agency need to talk to one another and work together.) But what about this: “[DEP Secretary Mike] Krancer said DEP will make decisions based on facts and sound science by providing enhanced, unified oversight to the natural gas industry.” In what way can it be argued that decisions based on facts and science (something we would certainly wholeheartedly support) are enabled by providing unified oversight of the natural gas industry? We see no relationship, logical or causal, between the two concepts.

Indeed, it has been our observation that, when applied to regulations, terms like “unified” and “consistent,” concepts stressed in the document, are code words for “making a smooth path for industrial development.” The idea is that the most important thing is to create a level playing field throughout the state so that gas companies don’t have to worry about complying with a variety of different rules. We can understand why that’s good for business. But we don’t get why it’s necessarily good for the environment. Nor does it relate to science-based decisions. It relates to money-based decisions.

Furthermore, what “consistency” tends to do, in practice, is aim for the lowest common denominator. When the department first took away oversight of natural gas facilities from the local conservation districts a few years ago, it meant that control was removed from those who are not only in the best position to see what is going on, but to care about it. And districts like PCCD, which are inclined to provide better protection for their own vicinity than Harrisburg, have been hamstrung. The same “unifying” effect, of course, is created by the state’s Oil & Gas Act, which provides all kinds of state-level exceptions and permissions for those industries that apply across the board, regardless of the wishes of specific localities.

The kind of problems this pull to state control can produce became evident at the monthly board meeting of the PCCD last week. Under discussion were gas pipeline companies, not gas drillers, but many of the principles involved are the same.

Among the issues discussed was the fact that the rules that have been constructed for the pipeline companies, as part of the oil and gas industry, are much more lenient than for small businesses or individuals, who have to reclaim earth disturbances as they go along. This has allowed vast tracts of Pike to be disturbed at one time, creating corresponding runoff risks for every stream and wetland in the county. (And the “consistency” part is…? How about having consistent rules for everybody, big and small?)

Because of the vast size of this disturbed area, there is no way to get sufficient staff to oversee it. On the sites that staff can get to, “stupid” violations are observed, and recorded, repeatedly. But despite this, the companies have not been fined by the DEP. When pressed by the PCCD, the DEP responded that it didn’t want to collect fines now; it would do so “at the end.” (And the “protection” part is…?) Finally, it was reported that during a conference call in which PCCD board member Linda Cioppa participated, both state and industry (Range Resources) representatives came right out and said that no changes would be made in the regulatory structure without the gas companies’ approval: they “call the shots.”

The complaint is sometimes made that environmental regulatory agencies aren’t there to prevent pollution; they’re there to permit pollution, and collect a fee for it. Right now, it looks like that’s what’s going on in Pennsylvania. Those who are confident that it’s fine to welcome drilling into our backyards because the regulators will protect our precious resources should take heed. And those who would like to see things change might want to start looking forward to next year’s elections, and a change in Pennsylvania state government. Because that’s probably what it would take to change the regulatory culture.