State wants to crack down on emissions at shale well sites

Pennsylvania will take new steps to cut methane emissions from natural gas wells and pipelines, and fill gaps in state policies that have allowed many sources in the sector to release the potent greenhouse gas without mandatory controls, Gov. Tom Wolf announced today.

Mr. Wolf unveiled a four-part plan to reduce methane leaks and emissions at new and existing well sites and pipelines during a town hall-style discussion on Facebook. The plan includes developing a new permit for new shale gas well sites, a more stringent permit for new compressor stations and gas processing facilities, a regulation for limiting leaks at existing oil and gas facilities and best practices for detecting and fixing leaks along pipelines.

“These regulations will improve our air, address the urgent crisis of climate change and help businesses reclaim product that is now wasted,” Mr. Wolf said. “The best companies understand the business case for reducing methane leaks. Methane that doesn’t leak into the atmosphere can be used for energy production.”

Methane is a more potent but less persistent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, with 84 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

The oil and gas industry accounts for a quarter of U.S. methane emissions, according to federal estimates.

Marcellus Shale Coalition president David Spigelmyer said the industry’s use of best-practices has already driven down methane emissions. "It cannot be overstated that shale-related methane emissions continue to steeply drop as production sharply climbs,” he said.

The North Fayette-based trade group said it is committed to working with lawmakers and state officials “to focus on common sense policies” that encourage natural gas development.

Right now, Pennsylvania has a roundabout way of regulating methane emissions from new natural gas well pads.

Gas operators are exempt from some air permitting requirements as long as they show that they meet specific criteria: They have to tie most wells into pipelines to avoid venting methane into the atmosphere; keep other pollutants below established limits; inspect equipment for gas leaks using advanced cameras; and repair leaks within 15 days of finding them.

Current state rules also require methane emission controls, as well as leak detection and repair programs at natural gas compressor stations and processing facilities.

But Pennsylvania does not currently mandate methane monitoring, leak detection, or leak control measures at the state’s rapidly expanding networks of natural gas gathering, transmission and distribution pipelines, according to a draft update of the state’s climate change action plan.

And wells drilled before August 2013 — including hundreds of thousands of plugged or abandoned wells that predate Pennsylvania’s drilling regulations — are not required to comply with state rules for preventing and fixing methane leaks.

Methane emissions from shale gas well sites and compressor stations in Pennsylvania were down nearly 13 percent between 2012 and 2013, from 124,000 to 108,000 tons.

But they rose again in 2014, according to figures the Wolf administration released for the first time today. Methane emissions from unconventional wells and midstream operations totaled almost 115,000 tons in Pennsylvania in 2014.

Those estimates are calculated using an emissions formula endorsed by federal regulators but widely criticized for being outdated and imprecise. The Wolf administration said they are “considered a low estimate, since fugitive emissions are difficult to quantify.”

Gretchen Dahlkemper, the national field director for Moms Clean Air Force, learned the broad outlines of the governor’s plans during a meeting today with John Hanger, Mr. Wolf’s secretary of policy and planning, following a rally of about 40 mothers and children at the Capitol pushing for stronger oil and gas air pollution controls.

“This is a good first step,” she said. “It will directly regulate methane and it also has co-benefits in eliminating those harmful [volatile organic compounds], like benzene, that are really the most impactful to pregnant women, children in utero and young children.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection released an explanatory white paper with more information and technical details about the plan. The agency has also scheduled an online seminar about the methane strategy for tomorrow at 11:30 a.m.

Laura Legere:

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