As former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection from January 2011 to April 2013, I issued a response to the recent grand jury report on fracking. The report from the Attorney General’s Office paints a deeply negative picture of the DEP’s work in this area. My response outlined the department’s record in strongly enforcing existing law, making new rules, and fining violators. I sought to defend the professionalism and integrity of DEP personnel, past and present. It was also to set the record straight — with facts — on what I see as falsehoods and exaggerations in the grand jury report.
The report unfairly besmirches all DEP personnel who have made environmental protection their life’s work and life’s passion. It would be no different than personally lambasting and questioning the integrity of the whole Attorney General’s Office because crime still exists. The people I knew and worked with at DEP never wavered from the law, never turned a blind eye to wrongdoing, and always kept the safety of Pennsylvania’s citizens paramount.
DEP’s oversight of the industry was diligent, vigilant, and innovative. While I was secretary, our oil and gas program was reviewed and received high marks for all aspects of its oil and gas regulatory program from an independent reviewing organization. We innovated by, for example, issuing a “call to drillers” to stop taking drilling wastewater to older treatment plants that could not adequately treat the water to render it clean. They complied, and we accomplished in weeks what would have taken years to do through DEP enforcement litigation or new regulation.
Where the data collected from our inspections warranted, we were vigorous in our enforcement. During my tenure, for example, we issued a $1.088 million fine against Chesapeake Energy Corp. for a well pad fire in Washington County, the largest permissible under the Oil and Gas Act. The CEO of PennFuture at the time said, “The amount is large enough to get the attention of other drilling companies” and “should restore public confidence in DEP’s commitment to strong enforcement.”
It is ironic that two additional matters the grand jury addressed were dealt with by DEP years ago. In 2010, DEP required Cabot Oil & Gas to pay affected residents in Dimock, Pa., over $4 million; the AG announced 15 criminal counts against Cabot in the recent report. In 2014, in a case that began under my tenure, DEP issued a $4.15 million fine against Range Resources for the same surface impoundments that Range now has to pay a settlement of $150,000 to resolve the grand jury charges.
The grand jury report also fails to note that during my tenure, we implemented one of the first air permits for drilling that controlled methane emissions, wrote a new general waste management permit for drilling, created a new deputy secretary for oil and gas, which gave gas regulation a more prominent place within DEP, and started the process for a new comprehensive set of regulations for surface activities, which became law in 2016 as Chapter 78a. The report also missed that the state legislature passed, and the governor signed into law, Act 13 in 2012, significantly strengthening protections in multiple respects. DEP’s own current website praises Act 13 as enacting “stronger environmental standards.”
The Wolf administration minced no words in lambasting the report. DEP’s 56-page response is blistering, stating, among other things, that the grand jury was not provided accurate information, and the report itself is unreliable, crowded with factual inaccuracies, confusingly articulates the relevant law, is “not at all informed by applicable law or facts,” paints a false picture of DEP, is based upon “untested anecdotal accounts from a limited group of witnesses,” and is a disservice to the public.
It is noteworthy that most of the grand jury’s recommendations are legislative measures, not steps that DEP independently can take. While “disservice to the public” are strong words, I do agree with the Wolf administration’s evaluation that the grand jury report misses the opportunity to provide helpful and constructive input to improve DEP’s regulation of oil and gas activities. The grand jury report system can do good work to improve government, but here, Pennsylvanians deserved better.