In the wake of a New York Times series that revealed a serious lack of oversight of the gas industry by state regulators, the Governor of Pennsylvania has taken decisive action. He ordered the state Department of Environmental Protection not to report violations by gas companies without approval from his hand picked environmental chief. That’s right - Tom Corbett, the republican governor of Pennsylvania, ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to stop issuing violations against drillers without prior approval from DEP Secretary Micheal Krancer, who he personally selected as chief of the agency.
John Hines, the DEP executive deputy secretary, sent an e-mail March 23 to other senior staff, including four regional directors and the head of the department's oil and gas division.
"Effective immediately," it said, all violations must first be sent to him and another DEP deputy secretary in Harrisburg - with "final clearance" from Michael Krancer, DEP secretary.
"Any waiver from this directive will not be acceptable," Hines wrote. Regional directors reinforced the stern message in their own e-mails to staff.
Considering that notices of violation are the inspectors' main tool for enforcing compliance with environmental rules, Governor Corbett has basically kneecapped the DEP’s ability to control wayward hydrofrackers. The new policy has been met with disbelief and anger by people familiar with regulating the industry.
"They are putting us on a leash," said the one inspector, who spoke to the Enquirer on condition of anonymity because of a fear of retaliation.
Even John Hanger, ex DEP chief and good friend of fracking was against the directive. In an interview with the Enquirer, he said:
"I could not believe it. It's extraordinarily unwise. It's going to cause the public in droves to lose confidence in the inspection process." According to Hanger, there has never been a similar directive in DEP.
Hanger said the "extraordinary" policy was akin to forcing a highway trooper to get approval from the head of the state police before writing a ticket.
"It is a complete intrusion into the independence of the inspection process," he said.
Why would Corbett pander so brazenly to the Natural Gas industry? The Enquirer points out that Corbett received more than $800,000 in campaign contributions from drilling interests last year. A good investment for the fracking industry, considering that since taking office in January, Corbett's administration has overturned a moratorium on drilling in state forests and has refused to consider any extraction tax on drillers. Pennsylvania is the only major natural gas-producing state without such a tax.
A hydrofracking well pad in Pennsylvania. Image source