On Thursday, March 23rd, executive deputy secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection, John Hines, hit send on an unanticipated and regressive email memo ordering all Pennsylvania gas inspectors to stop issuing violations against drillers without prior approval from political appointee Michael Krancer.

The dramatic policy change will effectively suppress "Notice of Violations" (NOV) issuances and shift enforcement actions from professional inspectors to Governor Corbett's appointee DEP Secretary Michael Krancer. In the past two years, Pennsylvania DEP has issued more than 1600 violations to drillers in the Marcellus Shale, more than 1000 of which were identified "Most likely to harm the environment". Concentrating enforcement responsibilities and authority in senior level administrators cannot serve to protect the air and water; rather, it makes our environment less safe as these few administrators cannot keep pace with the gas boom.

For several years, gas drilling in PA has been ratcheting up and the DEP budget has been shrinking. Now operating with 60% of the funds the Ridge administration (yr 2000) spent, the agency should be providing inspectors the freedom to do their jobs as trained professionals without politically appointed administrators duplicating the work or, as many fear, giving industry a free pass.

As Pennsylvania drilling continues at breakneck speed, gas stock prices rise, and President Obama waxes poetic on natural gas as a clean fuel, this policy shift looks like another green light for the industry from the Corbett administration. Corbett relied heavily on campaign contributions (to the tune of $800,000) from the gas industry to win the Governor's Office in November 2010.

Katy Gresh, spokeswoman for the DEP, commented that the policy change is an attempt to ensure consistency in dealing with drillers. However, DEP employees and former DEP Secretary John Hanger (of the Rendell administration) question this motive and the policy the administration is taking to address issues of 'inconsistency'. According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer one inspector stated that "Not a single person in my office believes this is about ensuring uniformity."

John Hanger has called the policy "extraordinarily unwise" and stated that it undermines public confidence in the inspections process. It also appears that approvals by the Secretary or other high ranking DEP administrators could be far less consistent AND less accurate than by trained inspectors who have been to the drilling sites.

After the memos were leaked to the press, the DEP explained that this "pilot project" would have a three month trial period. During this period, a 30 member panel (representing industry interests) will search for a "policy agreement between those skeptical of the booming business and those benefiting from it." This comment displays the political maneuverings of the policymakers and reveals an interest in compromise over safety and environmental justice.

In the 120 day trial period we must be outspoken and adamant. This heavy-handed policy was passed without public comment. It reeks of political incompetence and corporate insouciance. Never has a PA administration (Democrat or Republican and none that I know of outside of PA, either) adopted this type of violations-approval policy. This must be reversed immediately.