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Pennsylvania Limits Authority of Oil and Gas Inspectors

A leaked memo says oil and gas inspectors can no longer issue violations to drilling companies in the Marcellus Shale without first getting the approval of top officials.

Oil and gas inspectors policing Marcellus Shale development in Pennsylvania will no longer be able to issue violations to the drilling companies they regulate without first getting the approval of top officials.

That’s according to a directive laid out in a series of emails received by the Department of Environmental Protection staff last week and leaked to ProPublica. The emailssay the new edict applies only to enforcement actions related to Marcellus Shale drilling and that failure to seek prior approval “will not be acceptable.”

The memos require that each of the hundreds of enforcement actions taken routinely against oil and gas operators in Pennsylvania each month now be approved by the department’s executive deputy secretary, John Hines. The memos are raising concerns that the state’s environmental inspectors can no longer act independently and that regulations could be overridden by the political whims of the state’s new governor, Tom Corbett.

“What this apparently is saying is that before any final action, the inspector must get approval by two political appointees: the secretary and the deputy secretary,” said John Hanger, who headed the DEP until January under former Gov. Ed Rendell and worked to strengthen the state’s oil and gas regulations. “It’s an extraordinary directive. It represents a break from how business has been done in the department within the Marcellus Shale and within the oil and gas program for probably 20 years.

“It’s on its face really breathtaking and it is profoundly unwise. I would urge them to rethink and rescind.”

Corbett has made no secret of his support for drilling and has stated repeatedly that regulatory reforms can help spur job creation. Last month he gave C. Alan Walker, a former coal industry executive and longtime opponent of environmental regulations, authority to overwrite permitting decisions at the DEP in order to encourage economic development.

A spokeswoman for the DEP told ProPublica Wednesday that the initiative is not political, will not interfere with enforcement, and is intended to clear up confusion and inconsistency in the agency’s regional offices. The spokeswoman, Katy Gresh, said there is no connection between the DEP directive and Gov. Corbett’s economic initiatives.

“It isn’t meant to be an interference,” Gresh said. “It’s meant to be a benefit to our constituents and would quite frankly streamline operations.

“There are times that NOVs (violations) have been issued when there is a pop can lying on a site. Yet maybe other things are being missed, thing that are truly detrimental to the environment that we want to take action on.”

Hanger, however, says that DEP inspectors need to have breathing room to do their jobs and that forcing a senior review of their actions will only increase skepticism about their enforcement decisions.

“It will cause the public to lose confidence entirely in the inspection process. The oversight process must be professional and independent,” Hanger said. “Inserting this level of review means the secretary, if he is going to take this seriously, probably has no time to do anything else.

“I do not believe this is coming from John Hines,” Hanger continued. “This is an enormous change in policy and it’s impossible for something like this to be issued without the direction and knowledge of the governor’s office.”

Gresh disagreed.

“The governor’s office is not behind this,” she said. “The governor charged (DEP) secretary (Michael) Krancer with bringing about consistency in his agency. This was a decision made at DEP in order to affect positive change.”

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