Gov. Rendell announced yesterday that Pennsylvania will hire 68 more oil and gas inspectors this year to respond to the Marcellus Shale boom, a 54 percent increase in staff.

The new hires will allow the Department of Environmental Protection to manage an expected threefold increase in applications to drill natural gas wells in the Marcellus, which lies under much of the state. The DEP expects gas operators to apply for 5,200 permits this year.

"The governor is committed to giving Pennsylvania a world-class regulatory program to oversee this world-class resource," DEP Secretary John Hanger said.

The state also announced plans to tighten construction standards for high-pressure gas wells to reduce the chance that natural gas might seep into groundwater or homes. Last year, migrating gas caused a water well to explode at a house in Susquehanna County.

Besides adding 37 inspectors last year, the DEP's Bureau of Oil and Gas Management has more than doubled its staff since the gas boom began in 2008. With the new hires, the DEP will have 193 people dedicated to oil and gas.

Rendell said the bureau was exempt from the state's hiring freeze because it is funded entirely with gas-drilling fees, expected to generate $11 million this year.

The state received $700,000 from those fees last year before the $100 permit cost was increased. A typical Marcellus permit now costs about $3,000.

Jan Jarrett, president of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture), praised the new hiring. "The governor's announcements . . . put us on the right road to grow the economy and protect the environment," she said.

The DEP has come under fire for failing to keep up with the industry's growth. Until it opened an office in Williamsport, it administered well-drilling north of Scranton from its office in Meadville, near the Ohio border.

Last year, the department performed 14,544 drilling-site inspections and took 678 enforcement actions for violations, Rendell said.

Hanger said the DEP was strengthening regulations to cope with the horizontal Marcellus wells, which require millions of gallons of water to break up shale and stimulate production.

The department is devising new standards for dealing with the wastewater and announced yesterday that it also was launching a process to write new standards for well casing and concrete, which seal off the wells from groundwater.

Yesterday, State Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware) introduced a bill that would halt leasing additional state forest land for natural gas drilling for five years, until the drilling can be evaluated. About 690,000 acres are now under lease.

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or