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Pennsylvania Close to Finalizing Methane Regs for NatGas Industry

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials said Thursday they expect to finalize and implement new permitting requirements for the natural gas industry sometime early next year.

DEP has been working since last year on a new general permit for unconventional well sites and revisions for the general permit for midstream facilities, such as pigging and compressor stations, and processing plants. 

The proposals, part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to reduce industry emissions, would be the first in the nation “to establish a threshold to control methane emissions at unconventional well sites and midstream and natural gas transmission facilities,” according to DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell.

The draft final permits are to be presented to the Air Quality Technical Advisory Committee on Dec. 14, and expects them to be finalized and issued before the end of March. DEP held a public comment period on the proposals from February to June, receiving more than 10,000 comments.

The changes would apply to pigging and wellbore liquid unloading, which have been identified as emissions that aren’t covered by federal regulations. Best practices would also have to be implemented for quarterly leak detection and repair surveys instead of semi-annually as federal regulations require, among other things.

DEP’s George Hartenstein, deputy secretary of waste, air, radiation and remediation, said the agency has responded to public comments by clarifying the language of the permit requirements and adding a 60-day transition period after implementation, among other things.

“We did work with industry and other stakeholders,” he said. “We had a really extensive, long public comment period. We had meetings with various stakeholders throughout the process to hear their specific concerns addressed in public comments. Right now, we’re releasing the draft final language to allow some additional input” to make sure “language is clear and understandable.”

The industry contends that it has made strides in limiting emissions, pointing to studies that have found low levels of methane from major U.S. gas fields and contending that gas helps the atmosphere because it burns cleaner than other fuels like coal.

“Our industry has a long and clear record of utilizing best practices and cutting-edge technologies to capture methane,” said Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Spigelmyer. “These continuous improvements make good economic, environmental and business sense, and independent data reflects our collective successes.”

Spigelmyer said “while we remain concerned about the use of permits to regulate a proposed methane limit that has no scientific basis, we do welcome the opportunity to work with DEP to address serious concerns our industry has with regard to permitting and regulatory certainty.”

McDonnell said a large part of the regulatory process for the permit changes has involved balancing the industry’s environmental impact with its operational realities. For example, producers were concerned about how more stringent permits would affect rig scheduling and well development timelines. DEP, he said, decided to exclude rigs from the general permit conditions as a temporary source of emissions.

Other parts of Wolf’s methane reduction strategy include developing rules to cover methane leaks from existing oil and gas facilities and establishing best management practices, including leak detection and repair programs to reduce emissions along production, gathering, transmission and distribution lines.

Hartenstein said DEP has been working with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for existing sources in anticipation of a presentation it expects to deliver at the Air Quality Technical Advisory Committee meeting in December. He said DEP expects to highlight its concepts then about what has to be incorporated into state regulations to maintain compliance with the federal Clean Air Act.

Despite President Trump’s stated desire to roll back Obama-era regulations, including those aimed at reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, DEP officials said they remain committed to advancing Wolf’s plans.

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