DEP chief defends methane rules for well sites

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is defending its controversial plans to reduce methane and other air pollution from natural gas production facilities even as it expands the timeline for public scrutiny of the proposals.

Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell offered a detailed justification of the proposed permits for new shale gas well sites and associated equipment in a letter last Friday to three Republican Senate leaders.

The proposed new and revised permits “balance the needs of industry for cost-effective operations and the needs of the public for enhanced environmental protection,” he wrote.

Sens. Jake Corman, Joe Scarnati and Gene Yaw — the chamber’s majority leader, president pro tem and environmental resources and energy committee chairman — had raised 21 questions about the permits after meeting with Mr. McDonnell in early February to discuss their concerns that the complexity of the requirements will discourage companies from drilling in Pennsylvania.

The senators were among those who asked DEP to expand the public comment period on the permits from March until June 5 — a move that environmental groups fear will make the permits vulnerable to being traded away during state budget negotiations that peak in the month leading up to the spending plan’s June 30 deadline.

Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, said the extension is a tactic to “delay and derail” new air quality protections. 

Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans, said it is too early “to say what issues — if any — outside of the budget itself might be involved in the final budget-related bills.”

The proposed permits for new shale wells, compressor stations and some pipeline equipment are the first part of a strategy to reduce methane emissions from natural gas operations that Gov. Tom Wolf announced more than a year ago. Regulations for existing natural gas facilities are also part of the strategy, but have not been developed yet.

At this stage, the department is proposing to revise an existing general permit for natural gas compressor stations, known as GP-5, and create a new general permit for well pads, known as GP-5A, to replace a roundabout permit exemption method for managing well site air pollution that has been in place since 2013.

In his letter, Mr. McDonnell said the current well pad permit exemption has an “unusually high” noncompliance rate of 28 percent on more than 3,000 wells drilled since 2013, despite “extensive outreach” from the department to the industry to try to correct the compliance issues. The proposed general permit is an effort to improve compliance and reduce confusion, he wrote.

He also rebutted suggestions that the agency has singled out the shale gas industry for special scrutiny.

DEP considered but rejected addressing other industries that also emit significant amounts of the greenhouse gas, such as coal mining, landfills and agriculture, because it found that those areas are either sufficiently controlled or the agency does not have the authority to take action.

Among the major man-made methane sources in the state, only natural gas and oil systems have shown significant emissions growth since the 1990s, he wrote.

In the letter to the senators and another sent Monday to state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, Mr. McDonnell defended the use of general permits — not regulations — to institute the new requirements.

“Neither” of the draft general permits “proposes any new regulatory requirements,” he wrote. “All of the provisions of the proposed general permits implement existing regulatory authority.”

Mr. Metcalfe had accused DEP of masking the proposed requirements as permit changes to skirt the state’s more comprehensive process for reviewing regulations.

In both letters, Mr. McDonnell stressed that the current proposals are drafts that can be changed.

Ms. Kocher said DEP’s answers were technical and the senators are still reviewing them, but the exchange “will help in our understanding of the issues and our desire to balance environmental needs with the necessities of the industry.”

Laura Legere:


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