DEP: State’s methane figures unrealistic

The head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection expects a suite of planned new leak-prevention rules and policies will cut methane emissions by 40 percent from the state’s shale gas wells and pipelines.

But during an online seminar about the state’s new methane proposals on Wednesday, DEP Secretary John Quigley said those numbers are nearly meaningless since the emissions data that DEP collects from the industry are “unrealistically low” because leaks of the potent greenhouse gas are so common and rarely measured.

“We don’t know what actual emissions in Pennsylvania are, but we know they are far higher than the number that we are reporting,” Mr. Quigley said.

The chief regulator’s frank admission of his lack of confidence in the state’s official methane figures came a day after oil and gas industry groups responded to the new state proposals by noting that, by the state’s own numbers, emissions from shale gas sites had declined 13 percent between 2012 and 2013. Methane emissions were up 6 percent between 2013 and 2014, but they are still below 2012 levels.

Mr. Quigley said that even if only 1 percent of methane escaped from Pennsylvania’s natural gas system in its long path from well sites to homes — a conservative estimate — nearly 1 million tons of methane, worth more than $60 million, would be lost annually.

“For the industry to blithely say that our emissions are going down, I’d like to say, ‘Prove that.’ We have no indication that that is the case,” he said.

“Clearly with production going up, there is a very real risk that if we don’t do everything we can to reasonably minimize these leaks, we could essentially throw away the climate benefits of burning natural gas for electricity production.”

Business groups say new rules are not necessary because companies have a natural incentive and a proven track record of taking extra steps to minimize the loss of their product.

“Simply put, these businesses have a vested economic interest in getting gas to market in a responsible and efficient manner,” Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said Tuesday.

The state is willing to entertain the idea of alternative routes to compliance, for example, if companies could prove with rigorous measurements that they were keeping leaks below 1 percent of their gas production across their entire value chain, Mr. Quigley said.

For now, though, DEP is pursuing the traditional route of permits and rules.

The department intends to develop two new permits for methane emissions sources it already regulates: new shale gas well pads and new compressor stations.

The new well pad permit will replace the oblique exemption process the agency currently uses to limit emissions from well sites built after August 2013. It will also be stricter, requiring leak monitoring four times a year instead of just once a year, for example.

The new compressor station permit will update an existing permit to require better emissions control technology, including using either electric power or a type of diesel engine that cuts the release of some soot and smog-forming pollutants by about 90 percent.

Mr. Quigley said concepts for those permits will be presented to an air advisory board in February.

For sources of methane leaks the agency doesn’t currently regulate — well sites that were built more than two-and-a-half years ago and most of the state’s vast network of natural gas pipelines — DEP’s path is less direct.

The agency said it will build on pending federal air pollution guidelines for oil and gas wells to develop a state rule to begin limiting emissions from existing well sites. The regulation will cover sources at existing wells as they are repaired, upgraded or replaced, Mr. Quigley said, and it will mirror the requirements for new wells.

DEP hopes to have a final proposal to the state’s environmental rule-making board before the end of 2017.

The department also plans to use its pipeline task force to establish recommended practices for monitoring and fixing leaks from pipelines.

Laura Legere:

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