Report Reveals Few Penalties for Violating Gas Drilling Rules in PA
9 out of 10 drilling violations in 2011 received no fines from Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
Clean Water Action released a report on May 29 examining the enforcement actions taken in 2011 by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) against Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling companies whose operations violated the law.
The report shows that DEP continued aggressively issuing violations, handing out a total of 1,192, just 81 less than their total for 2010. However, DEP took few enforcement actions where drilling companies were fined. Of the 1,192 violations issued for 2011 only 37 percent received an enforcement action at all. Further, only 6 percent of violations resulted in any monetary fines. Fines for 2011 totaled $2.4 million.
“It’s incomprehensible that natural gas companies have committed over a thousand violations, yet most got just a warning ticket from DEP,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director for Clean Water Action. “This raises serious concern as to whether DEP is deterring them from operating in an irresponsible and illegal way.”
Despite DEP Secretary Krancer’s focus on consistency in the agency’s actions, the report shows cases of fines being assessed to one company for a violation but not another who commits an identical violation. Twelve fines were issued for the discharge of pollution material into waters of Commonwealth, but an additional 41 incidents for the same violation received no fine. There are also cases documented in the report where violations are issued for actions that pose a serious threat to our health and environment but carry virtually no consequences to them, including only issuing fines for 17 of 119 violations for failing to properly cement and case a gas well.
“For oil and gas companies making billions from drilling in Pennsylvania, this kind of inadequate oversight and enforcement is irresponsible. DEP should not let companies continue to commit serious health and environmental violations without significant penalties. We need a policy of minimum penalties and stronger penalties on repeat violators if we’re going to stop this high level of neglect for our clean water rules,” stated Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus Shale policy associate for Clean Water Action.
DEP did not issue a single fine last year to any gas company in the two counties with the highest number of violations—Susquehanna County and Lycoming County in the north central part of the state.
While the number of violation’s issued by DEP inspectors remained the same from 2010 to 2011, the number of fines issued by DEP in 2011 dropped considerably. In 2010, DEP issued 173 fines totaling $7.4 million.
The report calls on DEP to address these issues by consistently enforcing violations, enacting harsher punishments for repeat violators and violations that directly impact our environment and health, and barring companies with extensive violation records from receiving further drilling permits.
In addition, Clean Water Action recommends that Gov. Corbett and the state legislature increase funding for DEP’s enforcement program, instead of cutting DEP’s budget as currently proposed. DEP’s budget has been cut every year for four years, resulting in an overall cut of 42 percent.
“Given that many of these oil and gas companies have been major campaign contributors to Gov. Corbett and state legislative leaders, it doesn’t look good that the state is now overlooking their environmental violations. We need some assurances that DEP’s enforcement decisions are not being influenced by political cash,” concluded Arnowitt.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.