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Pennsylvania officials often boast about having the second highest natural gas producing state in the nation, usually while playing up purported economic benefits and downplaying documented environmental impacts. But today the ranking was invoked as a reason to stem pollution caused by oil and gas operations.

Governor Wolf's Administration announced a new plan to reduce methane pollution from fracking and fracking-related development, including gas wells and processing and transmission facilities.

At 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period, methane—the primary component of natural gas—is a major driver of climate change. In 2014, Pennsylvania’s oil and gas producers reported wasting nearly 100,000 metric tons of methane, or enough natural gas to heat nearly 65,000 homes

Curbing methane pollution will directly help the many Pennsylvanians suffering the environmental and health consequences of living near oil and gas operations. Stemming leaks and releases of methane would also lower emissions of pollutants like nitrogen oxides, which cause health-harming smog, and hazardous substances such as benzene, a known carcinogen, and toluene, which is related to kidney and liver problems. Several years into the Marcellus Shale boom, it’s definitely high time for change. The state's own data show increasing levels of pollution from expanding natural gas operations.

The Wolf Administration's methane proposal is a positive first step toward its stated wish to reduce the environmental impact of drilling. This is particularly important because oil and gas air pollution has been largely unregulated.

A concept paper released by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) outlines four components of the methane reduction plan:

  1. New regulations to reduce emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from existing oil and gas operations. These will focus on production and processing equipment and facilities and be related to the Control Techniques Guidelines recently announced by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  2. Revision of the current general permit for new and modified Natural Gas Compression and/or Processing Facilities (known as GP-5). DEP promises the inclusion of more emission sources (including those related to transmission) and stronger requirements for operators to conduct leak detection and repair (LDAR) and use Best Available Technology (BAT).
  3. A new general permit requiring operators to conduct LDAR and use BAT for all sources of emissions at unconventional natural gas well pads. 
  4. Development of new guidelines on “best management practices” to reduce leaks of methane from production, gathering, processing, and transmission facilities.

It remains to be seen when these proposals will be finalized, what they will accomplish, and the degree to which operators will be held accountable for the pollution they cause. As Earthworks has long pointed out, industry oversight and enforcement are the true test of regulations and policies.

It’s also increasingly clear, borne out by science, that in order to have a fair chance at avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground. Pennsylvania’s two stated desires, to address climate change and continue to expand oil and gas development, remain contradictory.

Nonetheless, it’s very welcome news that DEP has grown tired of waiting for operators to do the right thing and instead are moving forward with binding rules. As DEP Secretary Quigley pointed out on a webinar about the new plan, even though a few companies have taken steps to reduce leaks and emissions, “Without requirements, industry as a whole won’t take comprehensive action to address the methane problem.” 

This statement could also have been made by the EPA, which recently issued rules to control methane and VOC emissions from new oil and gas operations nationwide. Hopefully Pennsylvania’s actions to control pollution from existing sources will pave the way for EPA to expand its rules and cover existing oil and gas facilities, for the benefit of all US residents suffering from oil and gas development's air pollution, and for the global climate too. 

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