Bucks County Courier Times
By Nadia Steinzor and Eva Roben
April 4, 2017
Last spring, the Bucks County Courier Times ran a story about a new partnership to monitor and improve air quality and health. It provided useful tips for residents to do their part, such as taking public transportation instead of driving.
Every bit helps, especially in a region that ranks among the worst for air quality in Pennsylvania. This year, Bucks residents should welcome a new opportunity to help protect air and health: support state measures to reduce pollution from the oil and gas industry.
While there's no drilling in the county, no Pennsylvania resident is immune from air pollution from natural gas operations, which can travel long distances. A recent analysis by the Clean Air Task Force and other researchers determined that over 1,000 asthma attacks among children in Bucks County can be attributed to oil and gas pollution. (See www.oilandgasthreatmap.com.) And with plans underway for new gas transmission infrastructure like the PennEast pipeline, the problem could get worse.
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State data show increasing levels of methane pollution as more natural gas wells, storage equipment, compressor stations, and processing plants are built. Fortunately, Gov. Wolf's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has a plan to reduce air pollution leaks from oil and gas operations. DEP just announced the first step: requiring operators seeking state air permits to use available pollution control technology and to regularly look for leaks and repair them.
In 2014, Pennsylvania's oil and gas producers reported leaking over 100,000 metric tons of methane, which is enough energy to heat nearly 65,000 homes. Reducing that methane leakage would also cut down on other pollutants that cause health problems. There's nitrogen oxide, which causes smog, and hazardous substances such as benzene, a known carcinogen, and toluene, which is related to kidney and liver ailments. And because methane is 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame, reducing emissions is also critical for curbing climate change.
Despite all these benefits, some Pennsylvania legislators are gearing up to block DEP's pollution reduction plans. One bill recently introduced by Sen. Guy Reschenthaler would prevent DEP from adopting stronger methane control measures than those issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Bucks County senators should be deeply concerned about any attempts to cede Pennsylvania's ability to keep its air clean to the federal government.
To make matters worse, EPA only has rules in place to cut methane from new oil and gas operations. That means those standards don't touch over 100,000 active oil and gas facilities across Pennsylvania that are already leaking methane and polluting our air. And even those limited standards are under threat by a new U.S. Congress and a presidential administration eager to roll back environmental laws and restrict EPA's work. If Reschenthaler's bill were to succeed, Pennsylvanians' health would likely be neglected by the federal government, and our own state agency would be powerless to fill the void and protect our communities.
Neither the oil and gas industry nor the state conducts real-time monitoring to track pollution. This means that problems like ongoing leaks and accidental releases occur under the radar. After decades of drilling in Pennsylvania, it's high time for the state to take bolder steps to protect its residents from pollution.
The oil and gas industry often says it doesn't need to be regulated and will control pollution voluntarily. The only problem is that this doesn't happen -- and communities are paying the price. A growing number of studies show that residents living near oil and gas facilities experience diminished air quality and health impacts, ranging from worsened asthma, to increased hospitalizations for cardiovascular problems, to short-term symptoms such as sore throats, rashes, and headaches.
We know this can work -- similar control measures to those proposed in Pennsylvania have proven effective in other states such as Colorado, where methane reduction has improved air quality without hindering job growth. Public support is critical to ensure that the DEP's methane control measures enjoy similar success. Officials need to hear from residents who want Pennsylvania to retain the power to ensure our air quality is protected to the greatest extent possible.