Appalachian Basin

‘Legally Erroneous’: Wolf Administration Slams Anti-Fracking Pa. Grand Jury Report

After two years of investigating, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has reported the findings of a grand jury looking into whether shale gas producers had violated environmental protection laws. Gov. Tom Wolf’s Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees regulation of the industry, isn’t mincing words:

“The report is legally erroneous, which compromises its conclusions.”*

DEP issued a lengthy document critiquing the report’s methodology and results, finding that it failed to provide useful advice for regulators or the industry:

“The report also fails as a meaningful tool for improving the regulation of the unconventional gas industry, because the report is not at all informed by the applicable law or facts.”

In the report, Shapiro tried to blame fellow Democrat Wolf and the fracking industry for purported health impacts. While reiterating theircommitment to protecting clean air and water and the health of Pennsylvanians, the DEP blasted the report, saying that its recommendations “miss the mark as to [the DEP].”

Here are the facts behind the primary false claims of the grand jury’s anti-fracking report.

Claim: Fracking harms air quality and public health and that the Pennsylvania Department of Health took a hands-off approach to complaints.
FACT: Many of the grand jury report’s claims are unsubstantiated or anecdotal and lack sufficient details, such as names, dates, times, places, or the results of air, water, or medical samples needed to test their veracity.

As the DEP stated in its response:

“While the [grand jury] report states that the evidence was clear and convincing, there is no documentation of these occurrences, nor any evidence to associate these health effects with unconventional gas development.”

Going further, the DEP stressed that it had been “vigorously enforcing the law” and attacked the grand jury report for classifying the evidence of negative health impacts associated with fracking as “clear and convincing,” when “in most instances, the connection is anecdotal, rather than clinical.”

In a response issued to the grand jury Report, former DEP Secretary Michael Krancer highlights the DEP’s long-standing record of professionalism and thorough regulation. Although the DEP did not take a stance on hydraulic fracturing, according to Krancer:

“We innovated in regulatory practices and were diligent in our oversight of an industry, natural gas, which DEP had a long history of regulating. We consistently implemented the laws passed by the General Assembly and did more via regulation, policy, guidance and ‘boots on the ground.’”

Krancer’s description continues to demonstrate just how involved the DEP was, and remains, in regulating natural gas extraction in Pennsylvania:

“We were vigilant in implementing the law. Our people were engaged with all stakeholders and with communities to acquire insight and knowledge as the industry changed and grew. DEP changed and grew with it. It is common for those who as an ideological matter oppose hydrocarbon fuels and natural gas development to challenge the capacity of states to regulate this industry. I have strongly disputed that perspective and still do.”

Repeated studies conducted across multiple states have shown no link between fracking and negative health impacts. In Pennsylvania, research conducted last fall by the Department of Health found that fracking was not linked to changes in cancer rates among young people. Comparing cancer rates before and after fracking began in the region, the study found that:

“Incidence rates … were not consistently and statistically significantly higher than expected in all three time periods analyzed.”

These findings dovetail with the results of an analysis conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health, which investigated the impact of drilling activity near a school in Greeley, Colorado on benzene levels, finding that:

“An investigation into elevated levels of benzene, a cancer-causing agent, in the air near a Greeley school has found no health risks for students or nearby residents.”

Claim: The grand jury says it is “not anti-fracking” and only seeks to mitigate “reckless harms.”
FACT: In truth, the setbacks they propose would effectively ban fracking.

The grand jury report opens with the claim that the commission “is not anti-fracking,” but at the same time argues that state regulators have “often ignored the costs to the environment and to the health and safety of the citizens of the Commonwealth, in a rush to reap the benefits of this industry.” It proposes increased regulations that would effectively ban fracking in Pennsylvania.

Establishing setbacks that prohibit development within 2,500 feet of certain structures effectively leaves no room for development, and serves as a de facto ban.

But banning fracking would do more harm than good by raising prices for consumers by thousands of dollars per year and dramatically increasing unemployment.

Repeated proposals to significantly increase setback distances in Colorado have failed at the ballot box, in part because of the massive costs that such a regulation would improve on industry.

According to an economic assessment from the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business in 2016, a 2,000 foot setback distance could cost the state up to $11 billion in lost GDP a year and 62,000 jobs.

Meanwhile, a study from the U.S. Chamber’s Global Energy Institute found that Texas—another top energy producer—would shed 3.2 million jobs in Texas between 2021-2025 if fracking were banned, losses that would cut the state’s GDP by $1.5 trillion.

Claim: The fracking industry is still “in its infancy” and largely operates without effective regulation.
FACT: Far from being “new,” the fracking industry is strictly regulated to preserve public health.

The DEP stressed this in its response to the grand jury report, noting that several of the legislative changes the report recommends had already been adopted, or were otherwise “unwise”:

“The fact that the grand jury was not provided with clear or accurate information about the regulatory requirements was evident from the recommendations which DEP reviewed.”

Over the course of the past decade, Pennsylvania has developed one of the strongest regulatory programs for natural gas production in the country as rated by the independent State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER).

Claim: Fracking companies operating in Pennsylvania do not disclose the chemicals they use or the wastewater they produce.
FACT: Since 2011, Pennsylvania has been one of several states using the FracFocus chemical disclosure registry to ensure that residents have access to detailed information about specifically wells and the chemical composition of the hydraulic fracturing fluid being used there.

The DEP requires companies to disclose all chemicals they use both on that site and to the department directly, ensuring that the public stays informed. In addition to disclosing the chemical composition of fracking fluids, the FracFocus website also helps provides information about hydraulic fracturing operations and the chemical ingredients involved, helping to educate the public.

As of last year, there were 2,055 registered operators and over 156,303 wells included in the FracFocus database.

In his response, Krancer also details how the DEP ensured that drillers used water treatment facilities equipped to handle the chemicals used on site:

“DEP took steps in the ‘call to drillers’ to limit the use of certain municipal water treatment facilities accepting produced water that contained chemicals (bromide) that those plants were incapable of managing. We enacted an effective ban that prevented Marcellus Shale drillers from delivering produced water to those ill-equipped facilities. This was an innovative and creative step that succeeded in getting virtually immediate compliance.”

In summary, the DEP took chemical disposal seriously and not only required companies to disclose all chemicals but ensured that drillers were working with the correct municipal water treatment facilities.

Claim: Fracking produces thousands of gallons of “chemical-filled water that comes back up out of the well along with the gas.”
FACT: Flowback and produced water is heavily regulated in Pennsylvania and most of it is recycled.

The recycling and reuse of wastewater is strictly regulated, and typically managed by recycling and reuse, disposal in injection wells or treatment at facilities licensed to process the water. And as it grows, the fracking industry has been committing itself to recycling and reusing brine in new wells.

As EID reported last year, a 475 percent increase in natural gas production in Pennsylvania occurred alongside strong commitment to preserving water quality. In 2019, the state produced more gas than ever before from fewer new wells, thanks to improved technology and efficiency. This on its own reduced the amount of wastewater produced by fracking.

At the same time, the industry continued to increase its water recycling. Pennsylvania’s shale industry began voluntarily recycling its produced water in 2011, a practice which has continued to grow over the past nine years. By 2018, DEP reported that 90 percent of the produced water was recycled and reused by the shale industry.

In Conclusion: 
Pennsylvania’s shale gas industry has a track record of responsible and safe development stretching back more than a decade. Shapiro’s attempt to attack the industry by impugning its chief regulator falls flat.

As the DEP put it: “The grand jury report fails as an expose of a government agency ignoring its statutory duties and constitutional obligations…The report also fails as a meaningful tool for improving the regulation of the unconventional gas industry, because the report is not at all informed by the applicable law or facts.”

Pennsylvania’s shale industry operates under strict regulation, which has allowed the state to become the second-largest producer of natural gas in the country, providing employment for hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians, all while protecting the state’s environment and the health of its residents.

* Editor’s Note: An initial version of this post mistakenly attributed the first quote to Gov. Tom Wolf instead of the DEP’s response.

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