ALLENTOWN - Pennsylvania environmental regulators say they spend as little as 35 minutes reviewing each of the thousands of applications for natural gas well permits they get each year from drillers intent on tapping the state's lucrative and vast Marcellus Shale reserves.
And the regulators say they do not give any additional scrutiny to requests to drill near high-quality streams and rivers even though the waterways are protected by state and federal law.
Staffers in the state Department of Environmental Protection testified behind closed doors last month as part of a lawsuit filed by residents and environmental groups over a permit that the DEP issued for an exploratory gas well in northeastern Pennsylvania, less than a half-mile from the Delaware River and about 300 feet from a pristine stream.
Reporting by the AP suggests that applications are rubber-stamped, rushed through with little scrutiny, and rarely rejected. The staffers' statements indicate that DEP regulators are overburdened - and possibly ignoring environmental laws - as they struggle to deal with an unprecedented drilling boom that has turned Pennsylvania into a major natural gas player and raised fears about polluted aquifers and air.
The agency has denied few requests to drill in the Marcellus Shale formation, the world's second-largest gas field. Of the 7,019 applications that the DEP has processed since 2005, only 31 have been rejected - less than half of 1 percent.
"Even those of us who are skeptics of the DEP, I think we all want to assume that they're doing the basics. And they're really just not," said Jordan Yeager, a plaintiffs' attorney challenging the drilling permit awarded to Newfield Appalachia PA L.L.C., a unit of Houston-based Newfield Exploration Co.
The agency declined to comment about any aspect of its permit review process, even to answer general questions.
But the depositions of four DEP staffers responsible for processing permits - taken in late March and filed with a regional water agency this week - reveal that:
The agency does not consider potential impacts on legally protected high-quality watersheds, beyond checking that wells meet minimum setbacks required of all gas wells in the state.
Staffers don't consider whether proposed gas wells comply with municipal or regional zoning and planning laws.
They don't consider the cumulative impact of wide-scale development of wells in a concentrated area.
They appear to have a fuzzy understanding of laws that are supposed to govern their work. A supervisor was unable to define the requirements of a key anti-degradation regulation that says pristine waterways "shall be maintained and protected," while a geologist said he didn't know that streams and rivers legally designated as "high quality" or "exceptional value" were entitled to an extra layer of protection.
Asked by Yeager whether he had "any understanding of what it means to be an HQ watershed," DEP geologist Joseph Lichtinger replied: "Only that it means high quality."
"Any understanding what high quality means?" Yeager persisted.
"Do you know what that means in terms of the level of protection that they have under the law?"
Lichtinger, who performed the substantive technical analysis of drilling permit applications, shook his head, then answered no.
Lichtinger and his supervisors also acknowledged they did not take into account that Newfield's test well would be drilled within the federally protected wild and scenic Delaware River corridor.
The geologist testified that he spent as little as a half-hour, and up to a full day, scrutinizing each individual application. His direct supervisor, Brian Babb, testified that he took an average of two minutes per application to review Lichtinger's work. Finally, Craig Lobins, a regional manager with the oil and gas program, told plaintiffs' attorneys he typically spent another two minutes on each application before signing off on the permit.
"What these depositions reveal is that the state is doing next to nothing in approving permits, even in the Delaware River basin, even in high-quality watersheds, even in the wild and scenic river corridor," Yeager told the Associated Press. "All together, they are spending less than 35 minutes in approving these $5 million industrial sites that have the ability to pollute the water that's relied upon by [millions of] people. It is unconscionable."
But Yeager said he didn't fault the DEP rank-and-file.
"They've got limited time to do a massive job. What we have allowed DEP to do is to terribly understaff this permitting process," he said. "If we're getting it wrong in this case, we're getting it wrong for every well site that's being developed."