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Pennsylvania DEP adjusts proposed methane rule, but critics say it’s not enough

Reid R. Fraizer
StateImpact Pennsylvania
In this 2018 photo, scientists from Carnegie Mellon use mobile labs to detect methane leaks from the natural gas industry.

The Wolf administration is proposing tighter controls for pollution that leaks from oil and gas sites.

The updated proposal to crack down on volatile organic compounds and the greenhouse gas methane covers more storage tanks and creates a new class of well.

But environmental advocates say the rule still wouldn’t go far enough, especially now that the federal government is considering much tougher standards.

Storage tanks with the potential to emit 2.7 tons of VOCs per year must control 95 percent of emissions under the draft, down from a threshold of 6 tons.

Under the rule, wells that produce an average of 15 barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) per day must be inspected for leaks every three months. The new draft adds annual inspections for well sites that produce 15 BOE with at least one well producing at least 5 BOE. The Department of Environmental Protection says there are only 38 sites in the new category.

Advocates say the rule still exempts more than 60,000 low-producing wells, and more will likely become exempt as they age and produce less.

“Not only does this put the health of Pennsylvania families at risk, but it also means more methane pollution, that’s accelerating climate change, will be released into our air,” said Vanessa Lynch, a field organizer with Mom’s Clean Air Force.

Clean Air Council said it was disappointed with the rule and that Pennsylvania, as a leading gas-producing state, should have shown more leadership.

“It shows a complete disregard for the recent United Nations climate change report, which urged immediate action on substantially reducing methane emissions. This inadequate rule includes a gaping exemption for tens of thousands of well sites that produce less gas, but that can emit more pollution,” said Joseph Minott, executive director of Clean Air Council.

DEP revised its calculations to project that the proposal would prevent more than 11,000 tons of VOCs per year and more than 213,000 tons of methane annually.

A 2020 study from Environmental Defense Fund found Pennsylvania’s gas industry leaked more than 1 million tons of methane in 2017, which is 15 times more than state reporting showed.

Pennsylvania’s regulation is expected to go into effect later next year, but it may quickly become outdated.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently said production is not a good indicator of how much a site may leak. Its new proposed regulation instead uses potential fugitive emissions estimates.

The EPA says the rule would reduce methane emissions from covered sources by 74 percent in 2030 alone, compared to 2005.

At this year’s global climate summit, the Biden Administration promised to cut methane 30 percent by 2030 from 2020 levels.

The EPA says the oil and gas industry is the largest industrial source of methane emissions in the country, emitting more than the total emissions of all greenhouse gases from 164 countries combined.

Industry groups, including American Petroleum Institute Pennsylvania and Marcellus Shale Coalition, said they are still reviewing the Wolf Administration’s final draft rule, but said Pennsylvania producers are leading in efforts to reduce emissions.

“With methane – or natural gas – being the very product produced and sold, it makes both environmental and economic sense to ensure it is safely and efficiently brought to market. While multiple steps remain in the rulemaking process, Pennsylvania is already realizing significant air quality gains directly associated with natural gas and the industry-leading best practices being deployed by our members,” said MSC president David Callahan.

A 2021 analysis from Clean Air Task Force and Ceres, a group that advocates for a sustainable economy, shows the Appalachian Basin has one of the lowest rates of methane leaks compared to oil and gas produced in the country. The Appalachian Basin covers Pennsylvania, West Virginia and much of Ohio and stretches south to Alabama.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.

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