Gov. Wolf’s Methane proposal falls short

The Wolf administration’s recent proposal to reduce methane emissions from Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry comes two years after promised. It also falls short of what is needed to address the immediacy of the climate crisis.

Methane is the second-most prevalent greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, and methane emissions are responsible for about 25 percent of current global warming, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Its heat-trapping qualities are about 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, although it stays in the atmosphere for a shorter length of time.

As the second-largest natural gas producing state, Pennsylvania’s methane emissions have a significant impact on global climate change. The state’s oil and gas operators leak over 520,000 tons of methane each year, causing the same near-term climate pollution as 11 coal-fired power plants, according to a recent Environmental Defense Fund analysis.

As the Wolf administration stated in January 2016, “Reducing methane leaks from the oil and gas sector is one of the essential steps needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the impacts of climate change.”

Over 11,000 unconventional gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania since 2004, when that kind of drilling accelerated. Unconventional drilling, commonly employed in shale formations such as Marcellus is typified by the methodologies of horizontal drilling and fracking.

 Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is leaking from these wells and into the atmosphere at well pads, storage tanks, compressor stations, processing facilities, and along pipelines. These methane leaks are due largely to outdated and malfunctioning equipment. The leaks, however, can be significantly reduced through the use of state-of-the-art equipment and more frequent leak inspections.

On April 11, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) unveiled a proposed rule that “places controls on VOC [Volatile Organic Compounds] emissions which in return reduces methane as a co-benefit.” This rulemaking is one component of the methane reduction strategy the Wolf administration announced in January of 2016. That strategy promised regulations for existing sources of methane to be proposed by early- to mid-2017.

The biggest problem with these recently announced rules is that they don’t regulate methane directly— rather only indirectly through VOCs, which are chemicals found to varying degrees in natural gas. The DEP’s stated rationale for this indirect approach is that natural gas contains VOCs, so therefore, reducing VOC leakage results in reducing methane leakage.

While this approach may work on the “wet” natural gas found in the southwestern part of the state it will not work with the “dry” gas found in north central and northeast Pennsylvania. “Wet” gas has a significant VOC content while “dry” gas does not, so only regulating VOC emissions will not be reduce methane leakage from “dry” gas.

Pennsylvania has the absolute authority to regulate methane directly under the Pa Air Pollution Control Act. 

Andrew Williams of the Environmental Defense Fund stated last month that, “the rule as currently drafted would capture only 21 percent of methane emissions… The scope of DEP’s air emissions rule needs to be expanded – capturing only 21 percent of methane emissions leaves far too much pollution on the table and in our air.”

Arvind Ravikumar, an assistant professor at Harrisburg University and expert in the field, called DEP’s indirect approach “a mistake.”

The reason for this indirect approach might be the clout of the oil and gas industry. The fracking industry alone has spent almost $70 million since 2007 to lobby Pennsylvania state government, according to an October 2018 report by the Conservation Voters of PA.

In addition to presenting a flawed approach, these regulations are moving too slowly. Already two years behind schedule, once these draft proposed regulations are presented to the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board, they still face about a year and a half to two-year journey through the regulatory process before enactment. The regulations are not currently not scheduled for EQB consideration.

A recent U.N. report warned we must reduce greenhouse gases 45 percent by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Unfortunately, the Wolf administration has demonstrated no sense of urgency with regard to these regulations, devoting insufficient staffing to their crafting.

The urgency of the climate crisis demands that political consideration be set aside and we do the right thing. The Wolf administration should modify these rules to regulate methane directly and quickly present them to the Environmental Quality Board for consideration.

State Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware/Montgomery) represents the 166th District.