GOP legislator slams DEP strategy for limiting methane leaks

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, is accusing Pennsylvania environmental regulators of showing a “blatant disregard for the law” with their strategy for curbing methane emissions from oil and gas facilities.

In a letter Friday to the acting secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, the chairman of the House State Government Committee said DEP is skirting the state’s comprehensive process for adopting regulations by proposing to institute new methane controls at shale gas well sites and compressor stations through permit changes instead.

“The General Assembly specifically enacted the Regulatory Review Act in 1982 to address precisely what your agency is embodying right now as it seeks to advance complex and costly new regulations through … permits: lack of transparency, accountability and judicious use of regulatory authority,” Mr. Metcalfe wrote.

A DEP spokesman said the agency’s process for changing the oil and gas air pollution control permits is consistent with the law.

The agency is facing mounting opposition from the natural gas industry and members of the Republican-controlled Legislature over planned new rules for curtailing methane escaping from Pennsylvania’s spreading network of wells and pipelines, an environmental priority for the Democratic Wolf administration. Public health and environmental groups are pushing hard for DEP to enact stronger rules.

Methane is a far more potent, but shorter lived, greenhouse gas compared with carbon dioxide and is the primary component of natural gas.

Methane levels in the atmosphere are rising globally and recent research has identified agriculture as a key contributor, but a study last week by Drexel University scientists found that natural gas production appears to be the primary cause of a pronounced increase in methane concentrations in northeastern Pennsylvania between 2012 and 2015.

A bill introduced by state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Jefferson Hills, in January would prohibit Pennsylvania regulators from adopting any methane control standards more stringent than federal requirements, which are themselves being challenged by industry groups and states in court and are unlikely to be defended by the Trump administration.

DEP published draft versions of two general permits for well sites and compressor stations on Feb. 4 and opened a public comment period that will last until March 22.

General permits establish uniform standards for common types of facilities and offer a more streamlined method of regulatory authorization than the more cumbersome process of obtaining an individual permit.

DEP’s proposals incorporate and expand on federal standards by requiring companies to perform more frequent leak detection inspections. They would also apply to more sources, like pipeline cleaning operations off the well site.

Although public review of the proposed permits includes a 45-day comment period, it does not involve the type of oversight by legislative committees and the state Independent Regulatory Review Commission required when regulations are changed.

“DEP is at the beginning of this process, not the end, and will continue to work with stakeholders, citizens, industry, and the legislature on these permits,” department spokesman Neil Shader said.

The natural gas industry argues that it has an obvious incentive to contain leaks of gas it could otherwise sell, but regulators have answered that voluntary programs are not effective enough.

When Gov. Tom Wolf announced his methane reduction strategy in 2016, his administration estimated that the value of escaping gas in Pennsylvania could amount to $60 million of lost product annually.

Laura Legere:

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