By Elizabeth Skrapits
February 4, 2016
WILKES-BARRE — Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to reduce methane emissions is good — but local activists want to take it further.
To get the point across, members of groups including the Clean Air Council, Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition and Breathe Easy Susquehanna County opted to box the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Wielding 10 boxes that spelled out “cut methane,” they gathered in the lobby of 2 Public Square, which houses DEP’s northeast regional office, on Wednesday.
In January, Wolf announced he wants a 40 percent reduction in methane emissions — the second most prevalent greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide — from the oil and gas industry within the next five years. Under his proposal, DEP would develop permit requirements for controlling methane leaks at new gas wells, compressor stations and production facilities; and the state agency would adopt new regulations for reducing leaks at existing facilities.
Eva Roben, climate change outreach coordinator for the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, explained that more than 10,000 people signed a petition asking Wolf to make his proposed standards a reality. Members of environmental groups also delivered copies of the petition to DEP offices in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Erie.
“Here in Wilkes-Barre, we have 10 boxes, each representing 1,000 of those signatures,” Roben said.
Local activists approve of Wolf’s effort, pointing out negative effects of methane on the environment and human health.
But they’d like to see more, as they made clear before delivering copies of the petition.
“We commend Gov. Wolf for addressing the critical issue of methane emissions from natural gas operations,” Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition Vice President Diane Dreier said. “However, the question remains as to whether the proposed measures go far enough, will be put in place soon enough and will ensure the compliance necessary to avoid catastrophic risk to our environment. We challenge Gov. Wolf to prove us wrong.”
Dreier said Wolf should recognize that regulations for the natural gas industry, although “critical to curbing the health impacts of existing gas infrastructure today, are not the answer in the long run.” Instead, she urged Wolf to implement tax incentives for policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote clean energy alternatives and invest in green energy technology and infrastructure.
“Gas wells and compressor stations already in existence, often near schools, homes, and farms have already exposed all of us to toxic emissions,” Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition President Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez said. “The new standards will obviously not be able to reverse the real health impacts that people have already experienced. We need to take additional steps to aid those who have already been impacted and to ensure that healthcare professionals, like myself, are able to provide adequate medical care to our patients.”
Rodriguez called for a comprehensive health study related to shale gas and, in order to complete it, for a health registry to be set up.
Audrey Gozdiskowski, of Wyoming County, a member of Breathe Easy Susquehanna County, said Wolf’s proposed standards are, “good news for us in the shale fields.”
Gozdiskowski said she has three children and lives within three miles of three natural gas wells. She said she has already seen a doctor after experiencing throat constrictions when wells are flared — excess gas burnt off — and has had dry heaves and burning eyes, which she believes was related to gas development in her area.
“Thanks, Gov. Wolf, for taking the first step,” she said, adding that it is now time for DEP to work with the public to get the strongest standards in place as quickly as possible.
After speaking, the activists crowded into the elevator with the boxes and headed for DEP’s office on the second floor.
Nobody appeared to be in but a receptionist, to whom the copies of the petition were handed.
Later on Wednesday, northeast region DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly confirmed the local activists dropped off lists of names, but referred requests for comment to DEP Spokesman Neil Shader in the Harrisburg office. He did not return calls.
Also on Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board, an independent board responsible for adopting environmental regulations, passed proposed updates to the state’s regulations by a 15-to-4 vote, according to DEP.
The amendments, which took into account input from more than 25,000 residents, “improve protection of water resources, add public resources considerations, protect public health and safety, address landowner concerns, enhance transparency, and improve data management,” a DEP press release states.
The next step is for the amendments to go to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and the state House and Senate environmental resources and energy committees for consideration.