While Pennsylvania officials weigh how to regulate emissions from natural gas well sites, a panel of state senators on Tuesday heard how leak detection technology is advancing and creating more jobs.
Several members of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee met in Pittsburgh for a hearing on methane, the main component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
Arvind Ravikumar, assistant professor of energy engineering at Harrisburg University, said crews historically have had to drive to gas sites and operate a camera to spot emissions. New technologies make that possible from drones and planes.
He said businesses are forming around those technologies in Alberta, where he’s worked with regulators and the oil and gas industry.
“Many of these start-up companies will be setting up offices in Calgary to cater to their Canadian clients,” he said. “Given the scale of natural gas activity in Pennsylvania, I see no reason why we cannot have these companies set up operations out of Pittsburgh.”
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is proposing a regulation on gas companies, requiring them to conduct quarterly checks for volatile organic compounds, which contribute to ozone and sometimes escape from existing gas wells. While the proposal does not target methane specifically, the agency has said that repairing leaks of VOCs would also help prevent methane emissions.
Ravikumar said some of the emerging technologies target methane rather than VOCs.
“A regulatory regime that does not target methane will not be able to take advantage of the latest cost-effective approaches to leak detection,” he said.
Regardless, the proposed DEP regulation would result in more jobs for businesses tasked with finding those leaks in Pennsylvania, according to one such company that operates here.
“Immediately, I probably will have to hire up to 10 technicians to meet the needs of our clients after these regulations are put into play,” said Jared Metcalf, U.S. operations manager for Target Emission Services, which works with natural gas producers to identify leaks.
Some environmental groups told lawmakers that the proposal could be made stronger by addressing methane because the makeup of natural gas is different throughout the Marcellus Shale play. Andrew Williams, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, said natural gas in the northeastern part of the state contains few volatile organic compounds.
He added that the proposal is too lenient in exempting low-producing gas wells. As a result, EDF estimates it would cover only 21 percent of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.
“I think it’s important to point out the flip side of that,” he said. “There are 79 percent of the emissions going unchecked across the state.”
DEP’s proposed regulation recently got approval from an advisory committee and is continuing through the agency’s rulemaking process.
A DEP spokesperson said in an email that addressing climate change is a top priority for the Wolf administration, and that the proposed rule stems from a federal requirement to limit VOC emissions. The agency estimates the regulation would reduce what it considers a "significant amount" of methane by 20,080 tons per year.
"DEP takes comments from the public seriously and, depending on the public comments received, DEP may amend the draft rule or re-evaluate after implementation of final rule," DEP spokeserson Elizabeth Rementer said.
While no natural gas companies testified at Tuesday’s hearing, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, said in a statement that it has concerns about the potential cost of the DEP proposal and suggested the agency delay it given regulatory uncertainty at the federal level. The Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration directed states like Pennsylvania to address volatile organic compounds, but the agency last year proposed withdrawing that requirement.
“Our industry is laser focused on ensuring methane, the product we produce and sell, as well as related emissions are effectively and safely managed,” the Marcellus Shale Coalition said. “To continue to build upon our air quality-related successes, we’re enhancing best practices, utilizing new technologies and collaborating as an industry around these shared environmental and business goals, all while pushing record production levels.”
Lawmakers at the hearing also heard from several southwestern Pennsylvania residents who live near gas wells.
Jane Worthington of Washington County tearfully recounted the health problems her daughter has experienced, which she attributes to natural gas development in the area, including near her child’s school.
She spoke of her daughter’s headaches, bleeding noses, bruises, and her own frustrations trying to obtain test results showing what was happening.
“We need methane regulations now, and I can’t say it strong enough,” she said.
This story was published in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between WESA, Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY, to cover the commonwealth’s energy economy. Read more stories at StateImpact Pennsylvania's website.