The state Environmental Quality Board, which promulgates Pennsylvania's environmental regulations, on Wednesday approved controversial new rules intended to reduce the surface impacts of oil and gas drilling.

The EQB, which is dominated by members of the Wolf administration, approved the new rules by a 15-4 vote. The rules will likely face a legal challenge from the industry.

The last revision of the rules came in 2001, three years before the first Marcellus Shale well was drilled, launching a boom that has turned Pennsylvania into the nation's second-largest gas-producing state.

"Work on this package began almost five years ago," said John Quigley, secretary of the Department of Environental Protection. "It's time to finish the job and put these reasonable, balanced, and incremental protections for public health and the environment into effect."

The new performance standards at oil and gas well sites ban open-air waste-storage pits, establish minimum distances that wells must be from schools and playgrounds, and add new rules for monitoring wells and cleaning up spills.

Separate rules were drafted for "unconventional" drillers who tap into deep shale formations using horizontal drilling and hydraulic-fracturing techniques. More lenient standards were set for the conventional gas industry, which targets shallow gas formations.

The new regulations would cost conventional drillers $28.6 million a year. They would initially set back unconventional shale-gas drillers $73.5 million and $31.1 million in maximum annual costs, said Scott Perry, DEP's deputy secretary for oil and gas management.

But Perry said the estimates were based on more activity than is now taking place in Pennsylvania, where many drillers have shut down in response to low prices.

Only 22 drill rigs were operating in Pennsylvania last week, down from 54 a year ago and 109 five years ago, when regulators launched the process to revise the drilling rules.

The rules will now undergo review by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and the House and Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committees.

The Republican chairmen of the legislative committees, who are EQB members, voted against the rules.

State Sen. Gene Yaw (R., Lycoming) questioned the need for them. "These are regulations looking for a problem," he said.

State Rep. Greg Vitali, a Delaware County Democrat who sits on the House Environment Committee, expressed frustration with the rule-making pace.

"I'm sick and tired the way the drilling industry has delayed this process, has delayed other things like the severance tax, the control they have over all this," he said.

215-854-2947

@maykuth