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John Hanger, PA’s Former Environmental Chief, Talks About Challenges of Keeping Gas Drilling Safe

The former head of Pennsylvania’s environmental agency defends his department, but says more work is needed to protect the state’s natural resources from gas drilling.

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Now-former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger (Michael J. Mullen/AP Photo/Scranton Times & Tribune)

John Hanger, who led Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection until January, recently talked with ProPublica about the challenges of trying to regulate the expanding drilling industry. Hanger joined the DEP in 2008, when gas drilling in the state's Marcellus Shale formation was ramping up. During his tenure, the department tightened drilling regulations by limiting the discharge of certain pollutants into rivers and streams, strengthening standards for new wells, banning development within 150 feet of certain waterways and requiring drillers to include water-use and waste-disposal plans with their well permit applications. Before he joined the department, Hanger was president and CEO of PennFuture, an environmental organization. He left the DEP when Tom Corbett took over as governor.

When you joined the department in 2008, drilling in the Marcellus Shale was just starting to take off. What did you expect at the time?

When I was asked by Governor Rendell to take the job, before I gave him an answer I asked him what did he want me to do. ... He rattled off five items, and the third one on the list was to protect the waters and produce the gas. ... Obviously we had a lot of work to do. The regulations needed a complete rewrite, there needed to be funds and revenues raised to pay for increased staff.

I think there's a sense among some who have followed drilling in Pennsylvania that regulators have been playing catch-up to the industry.

The industry is growing rapidly, and our goal was to grow with the industry. To some that may look like playing catch-up. To others it may look like exactly what I said it was, trying to pace growth with the industry. The one area of rules that I think were behind the times were the drilling standards. As I've said, I think those rules should have been updated a decade ago. ... Pennsylvania has had gas migration issues for a long time, and the [well] casing and cementing rules and other criteria were not where they needed to be. I moved to get those changed within months of coming through the door.

The water plan rule I think went into effect when it should have gone into effect. There were a couple cases where a drilling company had, I'm speaking metaphorically, put a big straw in a small glass, and it impacted two streams. Then we put in place the water plan requirement, and to our knowledge we haven't had a problem since.

We announced the waste disposal rule [which set limits for discharging certain pollutants found in drilling wastewater] in 2009. ... Unless this rule changed, the industry wouldn't recycle, they wouldn't look for deep well injection. ... I think basically that rule went into place as it should have. It changed as the industry ramped up.

One of the recurring issues around the growth of gas drilling is that, even if laws are in place, they need to be enforced. Does Pennsylvania have enough inspectors to oversee the industry as it continues to grow?

It does as of this moment, but I've been saying for two years that's a question that has to be asked and answered every year. As the industry grows, the answer I think will be no, if we stay with the current staffing. We hired in 2009. We hired in 2010. And if we were still in charge of the department, we would probably end up hiring again in 2011, depending on what's going on with the industry.

Can that realistically be done?

Of course it can be done. If needed, and I'm not prepared to say today that it's needed, the state or a governor needs to make this a top priority and then it can happen. That's what we did. We raised the fee. ...You could raise the fee, you could restructure the fee, you could tax the industry, how about that idea?

[Former Governor Ed Rendell and Hanger tried unsuccessfully to persuade the state legislature to levy a tax on natural gas extraction.] It's absolutely vital that this industry pay a reasonable drilling tax. That's why every other state has assessed a drilling tax. It's because there are actually winners and losers.

Do you think gas drilling with high-volume hydraulic fracturing, as it's being practiced now in Pennsylvania, is safe?

Yes, it's safe in this respect. Is the risk zero? No. But is it as safe as mining and producing and burning coal? It's actually much safer... Is it as safe or safer than drilling, producing and burning oil? It is actually much safer... None of our risks in energy production are zero.

What could drilling companies do to make it safer?

What is desperately needed is the creation of a culture of safety within the industry. And it's possible to do. I'm very proud of the fact that Pennsylvania, in 2010, had its first year without a mining fatality. ... In Pennsylvania there are coal companies that have a culture of safety and have created for the first time in the history of the state, no mining deaths. It's a phenomenal thing.

The government, federal and state, played an important role in creating incentives for the industry to develop that culture of safety. I have no doubt, if there was no regulation of coal mining in Pennsylvania, there would have been many more deaths, and the environmental damage would have been much greater. These industries can't self-regulate to that culture of safety.

Does Pennsylvania have the laws it needs to make sure the drilling industry takes that path?

I think there are a couple of areas where further work needs to be done, at a minimum. One is the bonding law [which requires that drillers post bonds to cover the cost of plugging and reclaiming wells that are no longer producing]. The bonding rate in Pennsylvania is scandalously low: It's ridiculous.

[Also], it would make good environmental and economic sense to have a spacing and pooling rule on the books. The details need to get worked out, but essentially, what it would do is say that wells cannot be closer than X. I've thrown out somewhere between one and two miles apart... And that gas can in fact be pooled as long as any gas used from an unwilling mineral owner is compensated for it at certainly the fair market value. [Because a single well can often drain gas from several properties, “pooling” laws sometimes allow drillers to extract that gas over the objection of some of the landowners.] Most other states have some provision like that.

Should the federal government regulate fracking?

I laugh when people ask that question because, basically, if the BP oil spill showed anything, it's that you can't rely on the federal government to regulate the oil and gas industry. The Minerals Management Service was completely captured by the industry. There's no guarantee that doesn't happen at the state level either, but I think local people have much more ability to impact their governor. They pick their governor, they elect their state legislature. I think generally it's better to have these questions decided close to home. It's Pennsylvania's water, it's Pennsylvania's air, it's Pennsylvania's land.

Do you think the criticism of the way drilling has been handled in Pennsylvania has been fair?

If you get to these jobs you better be ready for criticism. I think some of the criticism has been useful, and I think some of it is uninformed, and some of it deliberately uniformed. There are some folks who want to shut down the industry and are willing to say anything to accomplish that goal.

What was your greatest achievement at the department?

There are a number of accomplishments I would highlight. One is building 1,200 megawatts of new renewable energy from 2003 to 2011. ... The state has done extraordinarily well in developing green jobs. There's a lot of talk of jobs in the Marcellus, and that talk is true. The Marcellus has created direct jobs and more through the additional revenue that then creates indirect jobs. But the state has also developed, according to the most recent survey of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, 41,000 renewable energy jobs.

The other thing I would point to is that hazardous air pollutants have been cut by 40 percent in Pennsylvania since 2003, with most of that improvement occurring since 2007.

Anything you would have done differently?

If I were king, I would have left office with the bonding amounts raised and with the maximum fines raised [for rule violations]. Both are important pieces of business not taken care of. I think the regulation of air emissions from natural gas production facilities is a matter that is not fully resolved. I think that's a significant issue that needs to be resolved.

What are some of the challenges you foresee for your successor?

There's a daily challenge, which is most important, which is to make sure that the process of regulation remains independent and professional and the laws are being enforced. There's the continuing need to review regulations to make sure they're adequate to the task.

With your experience working in a state that saw tremendous growth in shale gas drilling over just a few years, do you have any advice for regulators in other states who are in a similar situation?

First, you've got to have adequate staff. I find it remarkable that Pennsylvania is really the only state that's hired significant numbers of people—maybe the only state that's hired new staff—to oversee the industry. Colorado is a much bigger state geographically, with a much bigger area to cover, and it's got a third of the regulatory staff. I mean, that's impossible.

The second thing I think you need is the will, the will to enforce. If you're not willing to really enforce the rules and the regulations it doesn't matter how many people you have on the regulatory staff.

Without that, nothing else matters. If you've got leadership in the governor's chair, or in the presidency, or in the secretary's office saying “don't really regulate, treat the industry as a partner, treat the industry as a client,” then it doesn't matter how many regulators you have, it doesn't matter what the words on the page say.

Are you concerned that any of what you've accomplished might be rolled back or undone by the new administration?

We're going to have to wait and see what folks do. I'm open-minded about what's going to occur here. I think the public, however, wants this done the right way. The public, I think, by and large wants the gas produced and the environment protected.

I think most Pennsylvanians also understand that our energy choices are not perfect, that today if we are not using more natural gas, we are going to be using more coal and oil, both of which cause many more environmental problems during the production of those fuels and during the combustion of those fuels than natural gas does.

What's next for you?

I've formed a consulting company, and I'm going to be doing some work there. I'll probably affiliate with a law firm as well. I'm in the process of working that out. My affiliation with the law firm will be to develop a clean energy practice. I'm very interested in pursuing the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency. There's a huge growing need for those projects, the public is strongly supportive, and I want to play a role in pushing forward clean energy projects.

What environmentalists wanted was someone who was more aggressive in protecting the environment, not someone concerned so much about the health of the oil & gas industry. Mr. Hangar appeared weak and ineffective despite his claims otherwise. His choice to abandon an aggressive stance for the environment speaks volumes enough.

The citiznes of our country have mostly all given up on having a healthy environment for our children and grandchildren. The weight of the oil and gas industries’ political contributions have won their purposes.  The result will trickle in and we will all complain about the water and soil contamination as well as the air contamination, but the people don’t count anymore.  The exceptions are the owners and operators of industries which give massive amounts of money to the legislators so they can continue to rape our lands and waterways. And after those same people quit their legislating jobs, they are rewarded again by gaining a better paying job with the companies which were helped by those same people who were sworn to help the citizens and keep our country safe. It is an I got mine and screw you situation.

I disagree with you Pat L. It is this type of ” I give up already” attitude that the industry counts on. People will always matter….but they have been so accustomed to allowing the gov’t to do what it wants on other issues, they now feel the same about this as well. Change the people….the rest will come by itself.

Comments from the Sierra Club’s lobbyist

As the Sierra Club’s lobbyist in PA, I have several reactions to the comments by our former DEP Secretary, concerning the shale gas drilling situation here in Pennsylvania.  If you have seen Josh Fox’s Gasland, you might remember Secretary Hanger walking out of the interview with his back to Fox….........

You should know that, since leaving office, Secretary Hanger has joined a lobbying firm (Eckert Seamans) whose clients include the Independent Oil and Gas Association of Pennsylvania. 

1)  One of the first actions Secretary Hanger took upon his confirmation as DEP Secretary was to unilaterally remove the County Conservation Districts from the process for Erosion and Sedimentation plan review for gas well permitting.  The DEP then began automatically approving E & S plans, as long as they were signed off by a registered engineer.  This had the effect of significantly “streamlining” the permitting process.  No on-site review by someone who knew the soils/geology/wetlands of the area.  The Conservation Districts were outraged that they had been removed from the review process, with no communications from DEP prior to the decision.  That has led to improper E & S plans that resulted in surface water contamination from runoff in a number of locations.  There have also been fuel and chemical spills that have migrated off-site at some well pads.  The Conservation Community continues to advocate for the return of Conservation Districts to E & S review.

2)  Early in the Marcellus Shale drilling boom, when Hanger was still new to DEP, Sierra Club called for a major re-write of the PA Oil and Gas Act permitting requirements and enforcement regulations.  That Act, passed in 1984, did not (and still does not) reflect the reflect the new challenges presented by deep horizontal drilling utilizing the fracking process.  Hanger publicly argued with me after a hearing on the subject, claiming that PA"s regulations were adequate to take care of the problems associated the new drilling proicesses.  In the Propublica interview, he is attempting to rewrite history, as his legacy of needing to play catch-up with the drilling industry becomes more apparent with each new accident, contaminated well or spill.    It is true that the bonding amounts need to be dramatically increased.  But we also need a significant increase in the set-backs from homes, water wells and surface waters, as well as a host of other improvements.

3)  Inspections:  DEP is still woefully understaffed, and cannot get out to wells and drilling sites to perform the needed inspections.  While DEP’s procedures call for inspections, when we tried to amend the law to make them mandatory, DEP under Hanger opposed us.

No doubt, Secretary Hanger was following instructions he was getting from the Governor’s office.  In fact, Governor Rendell’s Deputy Chief of Staff left his government job to take a high-paying position with Range Resources and Hanger’s Executive Deputy Secretary left to take a position with Chesapeake.  The former left government shortly after Governor Rendell dropped his support for a gas severance tax and the latter left after convincing Hanger to remove Conservation Districts from the E & S plan review process.

The revolving door keeps swinging…......

Gunther Steinberg

Feb. 10, 2011, 6:54 p.m.

It will be interesting to see whether regulation of “fracking” fluids, which appears to contaminate drinking water, will be one of the “costly and objectionable” regulations that Mr. Issa will go after. - No doubt the gas and oil industry contributes heavily to the Republicans and wants the government out of its hair, people’s drinking water be damned. It profits that count, right?

We are drilling many gas wells in the Barnett Shale area in and around Dallas and Fort Worth.  Our current governor and attorney general seem to be in the pockets of big oil and refuse to work with the federal goverment on EPA regulations of any sort, so I imagine the folks in Penn. are still much better off than our people. Our underground water supplies may be headed for a disaster.

Whoda Guessed

March 5, 2011, 5:34 a.m.

Hanger to expand natural gas, alternate energy services at Eckert Seamans

Published: Feb 7, 2011

HARRISBURG, PA – John R. Hanger has joined Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott LLC as special counsel in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania office.

Hanger recently left office as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection after serving for over two years under former Governor Edward G. Rendell. He is also a former Commissioner of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, making him one of the few people who have had major policy making authority in both utility and energy as well as environmental agencies.

Hanger will support Eckert Seamans’ practices in the areas of energy, utility and environment, concentrating in alternative energy, clean transportation infrastructure, energy efficiency, competitive energy markets and smartgrid.

As Secretary of the Pennsylvania DEP, Hanger managed an agency of more than 2,800 employees with a mission to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment. Hanger also served as the Chair of the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority; the chair of the Pennsylvania Mine Safety Board and 2010 was the first year in Pennsylvania’s history that no miner died on the job; the vice-chair of Pennsylvania’s Infrastructure Investment Authority and a member of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.

He has played a major role in drafting and enacting the Pennsylvania Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act, requiring approximately 4,000 megawatts of new wind, solar and other renewable energy sources; Act 129 authorizing Pennsylvania’s electric utilities to operate energy conservation programs; Act 1 that provided $625 million for alternative energy projects; the 2005 Growing Greener Law and the 2010 Recycling Reorganization.

Prior to serving the Commonwealth, from 1998 to 2008, Hanger was president and CEO of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture).

Prior to his time with PennFuture, from 1993 to 1998, Hanger was a commissioner with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC), where he served on the Electricity Committee, the Consumer Affairs Committee, and the Committee on Energy Resources and the Environment of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC). Hanger has been described as the architect of Pennsylvania’s Electricity Generation Competition and Customer Choice Act that passed in 1996.

Before becoming commissioner, Hanger served as legal counsel to PUC Commissioner Joseph Rhodes from 1988 to 1993.

Hanger earned his JD from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and his undergraduate degree from Duke University.

john hanger and kent moors are nothing more than very proficient economic hitmen right out of john perkins book.they both make me sick

The Oil & Gas industry has been handed a tax break worth hundreds of millions by Corbett.  Does anybody in their right mind really believe that the Oil & Gas industry will protect their land and water?

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Fracking

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

More »

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