ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — 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.
Their statements, obtained by The Associated Press, call into question whether regulators are overburdened and merely rubber-stamping permit applications during the unprecedented drilling boom that has turned Pennsylvania into a major player in the natural gas market, while also raising 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.
“Even those of us who are skeptics of the DEP, I think we all want to assume that they’re doing the basics. And they’re really just not,” said Jordan Yeager, a plaintiffs’ attorney who is challenging the drilling permit awarded to Newfield Appalachia PA LLC, a unit of Houston-based Newfield Exploration Co.
The depositions of four DEP staffers responsible for processing permits— taken in late March and filed with a regional water agency this week — reveal that:
— The agency doesn’t consider potential impacts on legally protected high-quality watersheds, beyond checking that wells meet minimum setbacks required of all gas wells in the state.
— Staffers don’t consider whether proposed gas wells comply with municipal or regional zoning and planning laws.
— They don’t consider the cumulative impact of wide-scale development of wells in a concentrated area.
— They appear to have a fuzzy understanding of laws that are supposed to govern their work. A supervisor was unable to define the requirements of a key anti-degradation regulation that says pristine waterways “shall be maintained and protected,” while a geologist said he didn’t know that streams and rivers legally designated as “high quality” or “exceptional value” are entitled to an extra layer of protection.