Friday, December 30, 2011

Frustration leads to vigilante shale gas enforcement

Because there are so many drilling rigs, and so few inspectors, regulators have called on the public to help manage the shale gas industry.

Officials at Penn State Cooperative Extension have urged landowners at informational workshops around the state to “do their best to keep an eye on things,” and report problems to the Pennsylvania State Department of Environmental Protection. Federal EPA officials, while lacking the jurisdiction to oversee hydraulic fracturing, are “very concerned about the proper disposal of waste products, and protecting air and water resources,” according to a 2010 press release that announced a citizen watch program called “Eyes on Drilling.” Through the program the agency was “counting on concerned citizens to report unusual or suspicious activity related to drilling operations” including “materials, equipment and vehicles involved and any observable environmental impacts.”

While increasing the number of “eyes” on potential problems, these programs do nothing to increase the enforcement muscle of the state or federal regulatory agencies, and that has lead to some tense moments when residents and local government officials tried to take matters into their own hands.

The late Ken Ely, a resident of Dimock and one-time drilling supporter, tried to block-aide a fracking convoy on his property in 2009 after he became convinced the operation was contaminating his water and DEP regulators were ignoring his complaints. You can read more about the standoff in my book Under the Surface, to be released this spring. Additionally, Cabot officials hired armed guards in 2010 to accompany them on the land of some leaseholders in Dimock because, according to Cabot Spokesman George Stark, company personnel sometimes encountered armed residents. (It was not the company’s usual practice to bear arms, according to Stark.)

A recent example of locals taking matters into their own hands came this week. Daniel Roupp, a supervisor in a small rural township in northern Lycoming County, cut down a half dozen trees to block drilling crews’ access to a gravel road, according to a report by John Beague of the Patriot-News.

The road was being destroyed by Range Resources rigs traveling to and from well pads, according to the report. The township asked the company to fix the road and got no response, so it pulled permits that allowed the heavy trucks to use the road, Roupp said. That didn’t stop them, either. The road continued to deteriorate to a point where the state notified the town that it was in violation of erosion and sediment regulations. So Roupp resorted to the improvised roadblock with the trees. “I’m thinking we got their attention,” he told Beague.

Meanwhile, legislators and officials in New York State are closely watching and hopefully learning as events unfold in Pennsylvania. The DEC has reported that it does not have enough people to staff enforcement measures for shale gas development. Perhaps the state will count on local residents and officials to manage the industry. Some local jurisdictions are passing their own rules that prohibit fracking, although the industry is challenging these while maintaining the position that drilling is governed by state regulations which supersede local authority. Denying local governments a say in the drilling that will shape hometown landscapes will likely add tension between the industry and the owners of the land, roads and infrastructure that it will need to extract gas.


  1. In your book, you mention that Ken Ely's impromptu road blockade "cost the company about $3000 per hour in downtime." That figure is surprising.