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Pennsylvania drops a major source of methane from new rule to limit emissions

Pennsylvania’s environmental regulator is moving forward with a pared-down version of its rule to curb harmful emissions from existing oil and gas sites as it faces a federal deadline.

The Environmental Protection Agency does not distinguish between shallower conventional oil and gas wells and deeper, fracked unconventional wells.

Pennsylvania does.

The Department of Environmental Protection had been developing a rule to limit emissions of volatile organic compounds and methane from both types of wells. But it dropped the conventional wells from the final rule before presenting it to the Environmental Quality Board Tuesday.

The EQB’s approval signals the final steps before the rule can be enacted. It still must be approved by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and the Attorney General’s office.

DEP staff said they are considering how to tackle emissions from conventional wells and hope to have a rule for the EQB to consider before the end of the year.

Pennsylvania is running into a June 16 deadline to address compliance issues with EPA standards set in 2008 and could soon come under federal sanctions if problems aren’t fixed by the rule.

Glendon King, a staffer for Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), who chairs the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said splitting the rule creates a lot of concerns.

“To the extent that the department is considering pulling two separate final regulations out of a single proposed regulation, [it] couldn’t more clearly violate the text and intent of the Regulatory Review Act,” King said.

Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware), minority chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said every day without a methane rule allows more greenhouse gasses to get into the atmosphere.

“What we’re passing now is incredibly weak anyway, but we just have to move forward, we just have to stop this,” he said.

Pennsylvania adopted a methane rule for oil and gas sites in 2018, but it only applied to future wells.

Leaving out conventional wells from the rule on existing sites is expected to make it much less impactful.

In December, DEP projected that the rule for both types of well sites would prevent more than 11,000 tons of VOCs per year and more than 213,000 tons of methane annually. The rule for only unconventional sites projects reductions of 2,864 tons of VOCs per year and more than 45,000 tons per year of methane. That’s about an 80 percent difference.

But trying to push rules for both at the same time could cause a major delay, either in the legislature or the courts. The House energy committee sent a letter in April to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and DEP saying it disapproved of the rule. Some industry groups have already filed a preliminary lawsuit to stop the rule.

DEP is crafting the rule in response to EPA standards set in 2008 and 2016 and is closing in on a few deadlines. The first is June 16, 2022, which the state will likely miss, as the rule is not yet final and now excludes all conventional wells. That deadline could affect permits for new sources of emissions in the state.

If the rule isn’t finished by December, the federal government could withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in highway funding from the state. DEP said the commonwealth received $1.8 billion of federal transportation funding in 2020 and 2021.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition said it disagrees with DEP’s process for advancing the final rule, and noted the region’s relatively low methane-intensity, or leak level.

“With methane – or natural gas – being the very product produced and sold, it makes both environmental and economic sense to ensure it is safely and efficiently brought to market,” said MSC president David Callahan.

During the rule’s development, environmental groups were vocal in calling for DEP to “close the loophole” by not exempting low-producing wells. But reaction to Tuesday’s vote was subdued.

“The science is clear that we must immediately lower our carbon footprint to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and a big part of that in Pennsylvania involves properly regulating methane from the oil and gas industry,” said Rob Altenburg, PennFuture’s Senior Director for Energy and Climate. “We aren’t going to be able to reduce carbon pollution without stringent controls on the gas industry. Unfortunately, the industry continues to delay progress rather than accept responsibility to reduce their emissions.”

A recent analysis by Earthworks that mapped active oil and gas sites across the country found more than 1.4 million Pennsylvanians, including more than 290,000 children, live within a half-mile radius of the operations. The group says living in such proximity raises the threat of health risks, including respiratory illness. The analysis did not account for the estimated 200,000 abandoned wells that also leak methane.

Josh Eisenfeld with Earthworks said the map is meant to urge EPA to adopt strong methane limits as it develops a new federal rule.

Arvind Ravikumar, a research associate professor in the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Austin, said while it is broadly correct that a half-mile radius around each facility has the potential for exposure to emissions, recent research has shown that a majority of emissions come from a small number of sites.

“While this map is useful to understand potential impact of our energy infrastructure, we will need more specific information on emissions from each of those sites to determine actual exposure,” Ravikumar said.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.

Copyright 2022 90.5 WESA

Rachel McDevitt | StateImpact Pennsylvania