After years of government promises and public anticipation, Pennsylvania will soon have brand-new rules to reign in future fracking pollution. Last week, I attended the quarterly meeting of the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Air Quality Technical Advisory Committee (AQTAC) to witness the exciting announcement. New permit requirements will compel operators of future gas facilities to control methane emissions, both from planned releases and from leaks.
Because Earthworks, our partners, and frontline communities want to see meaningful state action on dangerous emissions from shale gas operations and cleaner air for all Pennsylvanians, we applaud the DEP for this significant progress. Yet at the same time, DEP and Governor Wolf must use this momentum to fulfill a longstanding promise and even more urgent goal: controlling current pollution from thousands of existing facilities throughout the Commonwealth.
Why this milestone matters–And why it’s not enough
Stronger permit conditions for polluters are an important step forward and owed in great part to the public, whose concern and input proves the importance of this issue. According to DEP representatives, the department received over 10,000 written comments and questions from the public in response to earlier drafts of the permits.
These new measures–which DEP promises will enter into force in early 2018–will help limit Pennsylvania’s contribution to climate change, since methane is a greenhouse gas 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its capacity for climate disturbance. In fact, the oil and gas industry as a whole bears the blame for a full quarter of national methane emissions.
Pollution from gas wells and facilities also harms health. A host of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) cause respiratory problems, headaches, and other problems, and include carcinogens like toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde. Many of these pollutants are scientifically established to negatively affect human health.
From every angle, reducing the methane that escapes from gas facilities makes sense.
But DEP’s new permit requirements will only help control future pollution. What about the more than 10,000 fracked wells already perforating the state, the numerous processing and pumping facilities–and the more than 1.5 million Pennsylvanians living within dangerous proximity to fracking infrastructure? The DEP outlined a tentative answer to that question at the recent AQTAC meeting. What they proposed should have people living near existing gas infrastructure demanding something far better–for two major reasons.
First, DEP proposes to base these much-needed regulations on controlling VOCs, rather than methane itself. This approach, they hope, will in turn put a damper on co-released methane. But what they heard from environmental representatives is that this approach will not be a fix for controlling methane in some parts of PA, where the “dry” gas emits lower levels of VOCs when produced and processed. In other words, operators in these areas would get a free pass to continue emitting methane and furthering climate change. In fact, standards based on methane emissions–rather than those based on VOCs–would be significantly more effective for reducing both. A methane-based standard could give ten-fold reduction in methane and a three- to four-fold reduction in VOCs over the approach posed by the DEP.
Secondly, the DEP may base existing source regulations on limited federal guidelines based on a low level of pollution controls, rather than more effective requirements. At the December 14th meeting, committee members questioned the logic of building state regulations on federal EPA guidelines called the Final Control Techniques Guidelines, or CTGs. One committee member announced that “relying on federal rules is not reassuring” in a time when federal environmental protections disappear as quickly as the Trump administration can overturn them. Five days later, the EPA moved to withdraw those guidelines. But states can, and should, go further when developing protections, using federal laws or guidelines–like the CTGs–as a “floor,” not a “ceiling.”
Even though the new permit requirements DEP announced last week aren’t perfect–for example, DEP removed a provision that would make operators notify the public of “blow-downs,” events that release massive emission loads into the air in a short time–they are a long-needed step in the right direction.
Now–and without further delay–Pennsylvania’s DEP and Governor Wolf must act to control the leaks at existing gas facilities. In 2014 alone, these facilities lost 100,000 metric tons of methane–an amount of natural gas that could heat nearly 65,000 homes. We need this action to be swift–but also smart–to give real protection to our global climate and the health of Pennsylvanians.