The Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board (EQB) on Tuesday voted 18-1 to approve revisions to air quality regulations that are aimed at curbing emissions from existing natural gas wells and pipelines.
The EQB, which adopts regulations drafted by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), voted to advance the new rules a year after they were proposed. They mirror guidelines for the industry passed in 2016 by the Obama administration to limit volatile organic compounds (VOC) and methane from older oil and gas industry sources that have been targeted for rollback by the Trump administration.
The regulations target VOC reductions from well sites, pipelines and other infrastructure, which would also help to curb methane pollution as the same control practices would prevent them. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration said Tuesday the new rules are expected to reduce VOC emissions by more than 4,400 tons/year and methane emissions by more than 75,000 tons/year.
“Both methane and VOCs are precursors to the formation of ground-level ozone, a public health hazard that contributes to asthma and other lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “In addition to addressing climate change, the regulation will improve air quality across the state, ensuring that all Pennsylvanians, including particularly young and at-risk residents, are protected from harmful air pollutants.”
The new regulations would require operators that produce above a certain threshold to use leak detection and repair equipment to identify and fix leaks, as well as use other equipment designed to reduce emissions. A public comment period on the proposed regulations is set to open next year. After that, the DEP would draft a final regulation that would also be considered by the EQB.
Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Spigelmyer said while the industry is also heavily focused on cutting emissions, the industry has concerns about the timing of federal regulatory activity related to existing source emissions.
“Rather than creating more regulatory uncertainty, DEP should delay any regulatory proposals until federal rules are finalized,” he said.
In August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed to loosen Obama-era methane emission standards, saying the changes "would remove regulatory duplication and save the industry millions of dollars in compliance costs each year -- while maintaining health and environmental regulations..."
If methane is released into the atmosphere before it's burned, it is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. DEP proposed the rules as part of the methane reduction strategy that Wolf announced in 2016. The state has already implemented more stringent permitting requirements for new unconventional wells and some midstream facilities aimed at limiting emissions. Wolf also directed the DEP earlier this year to draft rules for joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program in the Northeast targeting the power sector.
The EQB’s vote was hailed by a variety of groups that pressured Wolf to do more to reduce oil and gas industry emissions, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The group also recommended that an exemption in the regulations for low-producing wells and a provision to relieve operators of conducting frequent inspections if they don’t reveal significant leaks be eliminated.
“As the second largest natural gas producing state in the nation, Pennsylvania has a responsibility to protect our environment and safeguard families and future generations from this growing pollution threat,” said EDF’s Andrew Williams, director of regulatory and legislative affairs.
He also noted that operators including Royal Dutch Shell plc and ExxonMobil Corp., which both have subsidiaries working in the state, have increasingly worked to support stronger methane controls. In fact a coterie of majors, large independents and others have stepped-up efforts to battle emissions. Some have even opposed the Trump administration’s plans to eliminate environmental regulations.
“Our industry is laser focused on ensuring methane, the product we produce and sell, as well as related emissions are effectively and safely managed,” Spigelmyer said. “To continue to build upon our air quality-related successes, we’re enhancing best practices, utilizing new technologies and collaborating as an industry around these shared environmental and business goals, all while pushing record production levels.”