All Marcellus Shale permitting and enforcement actions now must be preapproved by state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer and other department executives in Harrisburg, according to internal department memos.
The new rules even extend to notices of violations that previously were issued by field inspectors and regional directors.
Notice of the major procedural change, which was not publicly announced, was e-mailed to DEP regional directors and the director of its Oil & Gas Bureau Mar. 23 by John Hines, DEP executive deputy secretary.
The e-mail directs them, "effective immediately," to take no final action involving Marcellus Shale drilling before getting "final clearance" from Mr. Krancer.
Permitting and enforcement actions also must be preapproved by Mr. Hines and Dana Aunkst, who earlier this month was appointed acting DEP deputy secretary for field operations. Mr. Krancer is copied on the e-mail, titled "Marcellus Shale NOV and other Actions" and marked "high" importance. Also copied were Mr. Aunkst and David J. Raphael, DEP chief counsel.
Katy Gresh, a DEP spokeswoman, characterized the move as a procedural change and said that it was designed to help the agency bring consistency to its enforcement actions.
"During Secretary Krancer's meetings with legislators and his confirmation and budget hearings, one message he heard loud and clear is that constituents perceive there is inconsistency at DEP.
"We want to ensure that as we regulate this industry, we are protecting the environment in every corner of the commonwealth, and we believe this procedure for violation notifications will achieve that," Ms. Gresh said.
Ms. Gresh also said that the change in procedure does not apply to permits, but only applies to violations and "other enforcement actions."
In an e-mail to all DEP staff involved with Marcellus Shale enforcement and permitting at the Southwest Regional Office in Pittsburgh, Regional Director George Jugovic stated that the Harrisburg directive applies to all Marcellus Shale programs.
"Scan or attach every such action and send it to me by e-mail," he directed his staff just a half hour after receiving the e-mail from Mr. Hines.
"To make this easier on us, make sure the subject heading reads MARCELLUS ACTION APPROVAL NEEDED. We will forward everything to them that they ask for until we hear otherwise. This must include enforcement AND permits/air plan approvals."
Mr. Jugovic declined to comment Wednesday.
The new policy was widely criticized internally by staff at DEP, so much so that Mr. Aunkst needed to send a follow-up e-mail to the regional directors March 24 apologizing for the "significant confusion and consternation" it caused but not backing off any of the new requirements.
John Hanger, DEP secretary during the last two years of the Rendell administration, called the change "exceptionally unwise."
He predicted it would cause the public to lose faith in the state's ability to fairly and independently regulate development of the Marcellus Shale gas play.
"This can do nothing but crater public confidence in inspections and oversight of the industry," Mr. Hanger said. "It will not benefit the industry, which will be the biggest loser because it needs the authentic, independent and professional inspections and oversight to maintain confidence in the industry. This intrusion into longstanding professional practices by political appointees is the opposite of what should be happening."
The policy puts political appointees in direct control of permit issuance and enforcement actions. Between January 2008 and June 2010 DEP inspectors issued 1,400 notices of violation at Marcellus Shale gas drilling sites. In January 2011, DEP inspectors conducted 30 inspections and issued 68 violations.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.