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"Plain language" guide to PA's natural gas law

"One of the first things we noticed after its passage was that there was extensive misinformation, even from some of the persons who voted on the law, about what it contained," said PennFuture president George Jugovic Jr.

Act 13, the Pennsylvania legislature's first attempt to update its old oil and gas regulations to incorporate the new frontier of natural gas activity, is nothing if not lengthy and complex.

Its provisions _ and what they may or may not mean _ have been debated vigorously.

Today, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, an environmental group, released what it is calling "a plain language guide and analysis" to Act 13. In comparison to the law itself, the analysis is a svelte 24 pages, presenting information in a question-and-answer format.

PennFuture CEO and president George Jugovic Jr. said the project was begun months ago, right after Act 13 was enacted, because so many people seemed so confused about it.

"One of the first things we noticed after its passage was that there was extensive misinformation, even from some of the persons who voted on the law, about what it contained," he said in a briefing earlier today.

"My goal was to try really hard to provide an objective document. I didn't think it was necessary to make this a persuasive piece of work," he said. He acknowledged that "you're always going to have some bias when you translate something," but that he wanted the analysis to be useful to legislators, citizens and others. The point was "to shine a light on what the general assembly did, then to create a dialog over whether that was a good thing or whether there need to be improvements."

When the bill was passed, some misinformation _ or "misinterpretation by omission" _ was disseminated, said Jugovic, who used to head the southwestern office of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

An example: Many noted that the statute increases the setback distances to better protect streams and to better protect housing. "What's not said, and what's spelled out in the report, is that there are also provisions that make clear the setback from streams only protects perennial streams, not intermittent streams, which a lot of biologists would say are the most sensitive streams," Jugovic said. "There is also a waiver provision that applies to all the setbacks." The DEP can, "with very little additional information, waive those setback requirements. And I know, from being on the inside, that those requirements are waived fairly regularly by regional staff when they issue permits," he said.

Another example: Proponents pointed out that wastewater is going to be tracked and that companies have reporting requirements. "That's true," Jugovic said. What we're not told, he said, is that those documents are not necessarily going to be available to the public. The records only have to be given to DEP when the agency asks for them.  Which means that if officials DON'T ask for them, they will remain in private hands, unavailable for public review. "So in terms of the public's ability to be sure DEP is doing their job...we won't be able to do that because the act did not require these documents to be made public," he said.

The analysis also looks at how Act 13 limits the rights of municipalities to restrict industrial activities in residential zones.

And, of course, it takes up the question of limits on physicians who request information about chemicals used in the natural gas drilling and extraction processes in order to treat patients who may have been exposed.  Medical officials who have read the act say it is unclear whether a physician could share information with other colleagues, or perhaps even the patient. State officials have said the intent of the law was to foster full disclosure and give medical officials all the information they need.

According to PennFuture's analysis: "the health official must limit use of the information to the purposes for which it was sought."

A two-page summary and the full report are available here: