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DEP Officials to Discuss Pennsylvania Methane Regulations This Week

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is scheduled to discuss a new draft general permit for unconventional well sites and draft revisions for the general permit for natural gas compressor facilities at an advisory committee meeting on Thursday.

DEP officials are scheduled to speak for an hour at the Air Quality Technical Advisory Committee meeting in what would be one of the industry's first chances to hear about the new permit and revisions. Those are part of a plan announced by Gov. Tom Wolf in January to reduce industry methane emissions. Other parts of the plan call for developing a rule 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.

The air quality committee advises DEP on policies and regulations. DEP spokesman Neil Shader said there is no timeline for the release of the new regulations, saying only that the draft general permit for unconventional wells and the revisions for compressor facilities would be discussed.

At the time they were announced, Wolf's administration said the new general permit for oil and gas exploration would require the use of best available technology (BAT) "for equipment and processes, better record-keeping and quarterly monitoring inspections." At new compressor stations and processing facilities, the administration said DEP would revise its current general permit by updating its BAT requirements and applying more stringent leak detection and repair, among other things.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) said DEP did solicit comments about the permitting proposals. The organization sent two letters in response that primarily recommend the state adopt a program that incorporates the requirements of recent federal regulations to reduce industry emissions from new and modified sources. "This will reduce both the unnecessary costs to comply with and the burden on the commonwealth, an outcome often seen when there are inconsistencies between federal and state programs," the MSC wrote in one of its letters to the agency.

The Obama administration has rolled-out a series ofsimilar regulations and updates in recent years to meet a goal of slashing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40-45% from 2012 levels by the year of 2025. Those rules are in various stages of development.

In Pennsylvania, the general permit for unconventional well sites would replace the Category No. 38 conditional permit exemption (Exemption 38) for oil and gas exploration, which changed DEP's air permitting policy and allowed regulators to more narrowly identify sources or categories of sources that could be exempt from plan approval. The MSC worked with the state to develop both the current general permit for compressor stations and Exemption 38.

Among the chief concerns about replacing the exemption criteria  and revising the current general permit is the possibility that the agency's efforts could exceed the scope of similar federal rulemaking efforts.

"When we originally developed the general permit in Pennsylvania, the idea was to reflect what was being required by the federal rules even earlier at the state level. Companies in Pennsylvania were already anticipating the federal requirements and were well on their way to compliance," said Kathryn Klaber of the environmental and energy consulting firm the Klaber Group, who was MSC president at the time the current regulations were drafted.

"Of course, with any regulation, the devil is in the details,” she added. “If DEP isn't aligning the state and federal requirements, or making the record-keeping and reporting more onerous than necessary, for example, there could be reasons the new rules are not acceptable to the industry. But that was our initial attempt, putting in place federal and state rules that align."

Sources couldn't say with certainty if the industry will challenge tighter methane emission regulations in the state, primarily because the proposal is still being developed. The MSC has already taken the DEP to court to challenge a separate overhaul of environmental regulations for shale drillers. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court stayed parts of that package last month so it can consider the merits of the industry's lawsuit.

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