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Oil, gas industry boom leads to expansion of laws in Pennsylvania

The booming oil and gas industry has led to an expansion of laws in Pennsylvania and other states aimed at protecting water supplies, an analysis by a group of regulators representing 20 states has found.

The report released Wednesday by the Ground Water Protection Council, a nonprofit comprising leaders from state environmental protection and conservation agencies, looked at laws in 27 states that make up more than 98 percent of the country’s oil and gas production.

These states, including Pennsylvania, have increased regulations that cover a broader scope of oil and gas extraction operations since the group’s first report in 2009.

Pennsylvania officials say the Keystone state is aggressively legislating and inspecting activities by drillers to protect water resources, but environmental groups question whether they have been effective — especially given legal and administrative delays.

Pennsylvania passed regulations in 2011 prescribing cementing, design and construction practices for gas wells and is writing regulations based on Act 13, a comprehensive overhaul of laws on drilling. A state board is scheduled to review those changes in January.

“Those improved well construction practices have really been credited with a significant reduction in groundwater impact,” said Scott Perry, deputy secretary for the Office of Oil and Gas Management in the Department of Environment Protection.

Related: Pennsylvania inspectors key to Marcellus regulation

The state has hired more than a hundred additional inspectors to enforce its new laws, Perry said. There are 202 inspectors in the oil and gas program, up from 65 in 2005, with 25 more hires planned, he said. But critics say that is not enough.

“There are still a lot of issues,” said Mark Szybist, attorney for Penn Future, an environmental group. “In the past four years, they’ve had significant turnover in their staff.”

But the changes have been too reactionary, Szybist said.”It’s good that we’re changing them now, but it also has to be said that it’s after the fact and we’re playing catch-up,” he said. “Pennsylvania is now learning from some of the mistakes from the past and trying to fix them.”

Protecting groundwater should first come from new well water regulations, said Jay Parrish, a consultant and former state geologist.

“We can do all we want to the oil wells but if you don’t do anything with the water wells you’re still going to have contamination of some sort,” he said. The state House passed a bill outlining new requirements for water well construction in June, but it has not been considered by the Senate. The report covered rules published by state oil and gas regulatory agencies as of July 1, 2013 and those that were being considered by states as of Sept. 1, 2013. The group favors a state-by-state approach rather than a blanket nationwide template for regulating the industry.

“You can’t really say that every state should be identical to every other state because there are specific circumstances there are circumstances under which that might not even be a good idea,” said Mike Paque, executive director of the council.