Pennsylvania’s climate contradiction

Authors: Nadia Steinzor & Raphael Breit

What do climate change goals and New Year’s resolutions have in common? The fact that it’s easy to make commitments–while fulfilling them requires planning, an assessment of what’s working and isn’t, and a willingness to pick up the pace. 

As Earthworks described in a recent blog post, such steps are currently lacking in some of the nation’s key oil and gas states. This includes Pennsylvania, which in the span of about a decade has become the nation’s second largest producer of methane gas. 

Yet the only action in the 2019 Pennsylvania Climate Action Plan pertaining to oil and natural gas development is reducing “methane emissions across oil and natural gas systems,” aka proposed LDAR policies and current permit restrictions. As do many nations and states, Pennsylvania needs to set a new course that includes ramping down–not expanding–its oil and gas industry.

 

Moving in the wrong direction

Pennsylvania  is a member of the US Climate Alliance, which has committed to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to meet international climate goals. As a result, the most recent (2019) state Climate Action Plan set greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals of 26% by 2025, and 80% by 2050, below 2005 levels. 

Yet in 2018, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf renewed an agreement with Ohio and West Virginia to  “maximize” Marcellus and Utica Shale methane gas resources. Through vast tax credits, the promise of quick issuance of permits, and other measures, Governor Wolf has encouraged the expansion of gas production for use in the power sector and as a feedstock for the fertilizer and plastics industries.

This political support has matched the exuberance of the gas industry for continued expansion and use of its products. Yet in-depth tracking of current and proposed operations by the Environmental Integrity Project shows a steady rise in levels of climate (and health-harming) pollution–a trend that clashes with Pennsylvania’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gases. 

In addition, a recent report by the Ohio River Valley Institute and Stockholm Environment Institute demonstrates that the planned build-out of dozens of petrochemical plants in Appalachia is incompatible with the need to decarbonize the climate and economy. (This on top of growing evidence that the presumed petrochem boom is likely to be a financial bust, while long-promised jobs still haven’t materialized.)

Such findings are alarming but not all that surprising. After all,  methane–the primary component of gas–is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time scale. That’s now longer than the time that international scientists have said is left to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

 

High time for bolder action

The PA Climate Plan indicates that 88% of statewide emissions in 2015 came from energy production and consumption. But the plan focuses on largely popular and politically palatable strategies to reduce GHGs through changes in consumption, such as energy efficiency and more solar and wind power. 

As a result, only 7% of projected reductions by 2050 will come from changes on the far thornier–and more politically influential–energy production side. The plan’s sole proposed strategy targeting oil and gas development is policies and current permit restrictions that require operators to find and fix leaks in their equipment and operations. While such measures can make a real difference in reducing methane, projected reductions from Pennsylvan’s plan are limited. (Any gains also assume strong enforcement, which Earthworks’ research has demonstrated is far from a given.) 

The oil and gas industry makes a significant contribution to Pennsylvania’s GHG (and other) pollution, with new well pads generating hundreds of tons of new pollution, compressor stations thousands, and large processing facilities millions every year. 

Given these realities, it’s difficult to imagine how Pennsylvania (as well as other major oil and gas producing members of the US Climate Alliance) can logically attain pollution reductions while continuing to expand polluting operations.

A key step, as Earthworks has described before, is for Pennsylvania (as well as other states and the federal government) to get a more accurate count of oil and gas pollution. Unless that’s done, the scope of the problem will continue to be unclear–and climate goals will continue to be elusive. 

Recent studies show that oil and gas emissions are frequently undercounted; for example, emissions in Pennsylvania may be up to 16 times more than reported. Initial data analysis by Earthworks indicates discrepancies between the emissions that Pennsylvania operators report to state and federal databases, even for the same facilities in the same year. (We’ll discuss this trend and specific examples in our next blog installment.)

The Natural Resources Defense Council has indicated that if Pennsylvania continues with its current energy policies, its statewide emissions could actually increase by 2050. The journey to meeting climate goals is long and complicated. It’s high time for the Commonwealth to seriously consider the role that slowing–and eventually stopping–methane gas operations can play in making climate goals a reality.