Pennsylvania bill gives conventional drillers pass to cut corners, lets communities pay the price

In recent years, Pennsylvania has become an epicenter of the nation’s hydraulic fracturing boom. But even as production from “unconventional” wells – those using horizontal drilling and fracking – has grown, nearly 90% of the state’s 120,000 active wells are older, “conventional” vertical ones that typically rely on traditional drilling methods.

What does that mean for Pennsylvanians? Quite simply, it means that smart, commonsense policies for conventional wells matter. A lot.

However, the state legislature is considering SB 790, which could unravel well-established oil and gas protections while shifting many costs associated with conventional production to taxpayers. As the bill makes its way through the legislature, here are some key facts to keep in mind:

Pennsylvania’s drinking water could be at risk. Current state law ensures that if drilling operations disrupt or contaminate private sources of drinking water, the driller must provide a replacement that meets Safe Drinking Water Act standards. SB 790 removes that requirement, and would allow oil and gas operators to damage water supplies without having to make clean drinking water available.

The problem of orphaned or abandoned wells, already a burden to taxpayers, could get much worse. Pennsylvania has hundreds of thousands of orphaned and abandoned wells across the state, and faces extraordinary cleanup costs associated with them. SB 790 would limit oil and gas operators’ financial responsibility to clean up after themselves, and leave taxpayers to pick up the tab. Some potential solutions would be to:

  • Empower state regulators at the Environmental Quality Board to require that oil and gas companies be able to meet their cleanup obligations with reasonable “bonding” standards. This requirement could be scaled relative to an operator’s number of active and idle wells.
  • Allow the Department of Environmental Protection to substantively review proposed well transfers and make sure operators don’t pass along financial and environmental risks to the Commonwealth if they default. Just this year, tens of thousands of wells were transferred without an accounting of possible consequences for the state’s taxpayers.

Loosened standards would endanger groundwater and streams. Brine is a major byproduct of oil and gas production containing salt, radioactive materials and toxins harmful to people and the environment, and spills of it can do major damage to land and water resources. SB 790 would gut the reporting requirement for spills by omitting the need to report brine spills below 10,000 mg/kg total dissolved solids (TDS). That creates a huge carve-out that poses a threat to Pennsylvania’s water resources while potentially increasing the cost of future oil and gas site cleanup.

Ignoring industry standards and best practices has consequences. Current regulations in Pennsylvania offer clear and achievable safety and environmental protections, but SB 790 relaxes standards meant to safeguard against groundwater contamination by permitting questionable well designs and weakening well plugging standards. These policies deviate from common industry standards and create unnecessary risks to the Commonwealth’s environment and public health.

Proponents have offered no reasonable justification for these roll-backs of widely-accepted industry standards. There is no evidence that compliance with environmental protections poses an unreasonable cost burden on operators. In fact, removing accountability for bad actors makes absolutely no sense and threatens the industry’s long-term viability.

As lawmakers take up this bill, they should consider the risks it poses to Pennsylvania’s communities, environment and the reputation of the state’s conventional drilling industry. As written, SB 790 would undercut basic standards and set the clock back decades for environmental protection while shifting the burden of the impacts of oil and gas operations to Pennsylvania’s communities and families.

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