AP Reports PA DEP is Seriously Understaffed and Cutting Corners with Marcellus Shale Drilling Permits

The Associated Press is transparently anti-drilling in its reporting. While everyone pretends the mighty AP is unbiased and “above the fray” and independent, it is not. So let’s just get that out on the table. MDN uses that preface for news from the AP that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is seriously understaffed when it comes to reviewing Marcellus Shale drilling permits.

IF the following is accurate, it is disturbing indeed and deserves immediate attention from Gov. Corbett. But bear in mind the news comes from the AP, so you never know…

Pennsylvania environmental regulators say they spend as little as 35 minutes reviewing each of the thousands of applications for natural gas well permits they get each year from drillers intent on tapping the state’s lucrative and vast Marcellus Shale reserves.

And the regulators say they do not give any additional scrutiny to requests to drill near high-quality streams and rivers even though the waterways are protected by state and federal law.

Staffers in the state Department of Environmental Protection testified behind closed doors last month as part of a lawsuit filed by residents and environmental groups over a permit that DEP issued for an exploratory gas well in northeastern Pennsylvania, less than a half-mile from the Delaware River and about 300 feet from a pristine stream.

Reporting by the Associated Press suggests that applications are rubber-stamped, rushed through with little scrutiny and rarely rejected. The staffers’ statements indicate that DEP regulators are overburdened — and possibly ignoring environmental laws — as they struggle to deal with an unprecedented drilling boom that has turned Pennsylvania into a major natural gas player and raised fears about polluted aquifers and air.

The agency has denied few requests to drill in the Marcellus Shale formation, the world’s second-largest gas field. Of the 7,019 applications that DEP has processed since 2005, only 31 have been rejected — less than one-half of one percent.*

*Elmira Star-Gazette/AP (Apr 13, 2011) – Pa. accused of rubber-stamping numerous gas permits

  • Otegogas

    Anyone who has been following gas drilling in PA over the last 3 years will agree the PA DEP is incapable of protecting the people and environment.

    This is the precise reason the NY DEC is taking so long, because they want to at least TRY to get it right the first time.

    In fact, in every state where there is active gas drilling the state regulators are playing “catch-up” by attempting to pass laws that should have been in place years ago.

  • Anonymous

    Although you discredit the AP report, surely you can investigate the situation to defend your beliefs and report your own findings. Those of us who live in PA know that our governor is cutting corners because the state is broke. Since Gov Corbett appointed his new Marcellus Shale Advisory Committee that’s made up mostly of energy executives and campaign contributors, we can’t be certain how well the DEP operates. DEP Inspectors have recently been ordered to stop issuing violations against drillers without prior approval from Gov. Corbett’s Deputy Secretaries Hines and Krancer.



  • Paul Cometx NYC

    MDN: :The Associated Press is transparently anti-drilling in its reporting.”

    First it was the NY Times, now its AP.

    It’s been widely reported in all Pennsylvania news media that the DEP inspectors are overloaded and overworked. Now AP picked up the story and gets thrashed by MDN for reporting what we already know. This makes AP biased???

  • I am aware of the policy change (and have written about it) in PA with respect to how violations now need to be run by political appointees–and I’m not in favor of it. The new advisory committee does have industry people on it, as well as environmentalists, so all viewpoints will be aired. But the point I think you and others miss is that the permitting approval process has been “broken” if we can call it that, since Ed Rendell. Corbett hasn’t been in office long enough for this to be a problem he created–it’s one that he’s inherited from Rendell. And indeed if this is how the permits are getting approved–a half hour review–that’s trouble. I’m pro-drilling, but I won’t gloss over problems when they arise. We need to fix it and move on.

  • No, AP is biased–my opinion–because every single article I’ve read by them on the topic of drilling, no matter what it’s about–has been slanted anti. That’s the basis on which I call them biased.

  • Paul Cometx NYC

    Jim reminds me of a newspaper that started up a few decades ago. The paper’s mission was to report only GOOD news. It folded quickly.

    What does Jim expect AP to report – “Gas Industry Says: Don’t Worry, Be Happy”? Unfortunately, news usually means bad things, that’s why its news.

  • engineer77008

    Two points on these topics.

    First, who is to say that 1/2 hour is insufficient to review a drilling permit? This is largely an administrative review to insure that all required engineering data has been submitted and verified as accurate. This is not a thorough technical review, which would be impossible given the permit volumes involved. Permitting has been working this way for decades in all states. All that being said, are DEP employees busy? An unqualified yes. There are processes in place for unusual permit circumstances, and those processes are more in depth and time consuming.

    Second, regarding all NOVs being required to be sent to Harrisburg for review prior to issuance. INSPECTORS HAVE NOT BEEN STOPPED FROM ISSUING VIOLATIONS. They now must simply go through Harrisburg before becoming official and going out. This action would not have been necessary if all DEP districts were handling inspections and violations anywhere close to equitably. The fact is there were too many violations being issued for things were not even true violations. This step was necessary so Harrisburg could evaluate the interpretations of the districts/inspectors. It is unfortunate that this step was necessary, but it will be beneficial to insuring consistent enforcement.

  • carlos

    As someone who prepares permits for the gas industry, I will say that this article is entirely inaccurate if my actual experience means anything to the AP. The DEP has 45 days to either approve or deny a permit. Usually they take the full time, sometimes when it is a gas well on an existing pad, it gets approved quicker because they have already done most of the environmental work needed. Often, very very often, they take the permit “Off-the-clock” due to errors or questions the reviewers may have. The permit gets returned and the company has 1 month to fix the errors or they have to start the process all over again. Once the errors are fixed and sent back to the DEP the permits are put back on the 45-day clock. Most permits are approved, because there are likely no impacts associated with the gas well itself. The excavation work for building a gas well pad, is under a different permit, and if the AP wanted to do a slightly little bit more of work, I think they would find that those permits are denied more often, and due to environmental issues, can take several months to be approved. The site may also require Army Corp approval, which could delay the project for a year or more. In addition, the drill permit process flow quickly in regards to environmental impacts due to PA DEP’s use of the PNDI system which searches the project area for species of concern (threatened plants, animals, etc.), and if there is a potential impact, these will have to be resolved with other agencies before the well can be drilled.

  • Thanks for adding that additional information. Both are good points. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  • Thank you Carlos! This is indeed good information. It sounds as if the 35 minute review is simply a formality and that the real work has already been done–at a considerable amount of time and expense. I appreciate your willingness to comment and bring this to light.