By Nadia Steinzor
March 12, 2017
As Pennsylvania considers requiring the oil and gas industry to plug its leaks to better protect air quality, the Trump administration is proposing to slash the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 25 percent.
If ever there was a time for Pennsylvania’s lawmakers and regulators to step up and safeguard Pennsylvanians’ health and the environment, it is now.
In-depth research by Earthworks on natural gas processing and compression facilities in southwestern Pennsylvania, including infrared videos and air testing at nearby homes, shows that these facilities pollute the air with methane and dozens of chemicals associated with asthma, headaches, cancer, neurological changes and other health problems.
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This same research, carried out over most of 2016, also reveals that oil and gas facility operators methodically “game” their permit applications to avoid sections of the federal Clean Air Act that better protect communities from major air pollution sources. Making matters worse, it appears that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection often looks the other way, rather than implementing the Clean Air Act as it was intended: to minimize pollution and protect public health.
The DEP’s neglect could potentially be deliberate, given the constant political pressure to allow the industry to expand. It could also be linked to severe cuts in the DEP’s budget, which have sent the agency’s appropriations back to 1990s levels even as gas production has increased 30 times since then. Last month, the EPA warned the DEP that it lacks sufficient staff and resources to safeguard drinking water. It’s only logical to assume that the same problem plagues the DEP’s air program.
Caught in these trends are the communities surrounded by a growing spider web of industrial oil and gas operations and worsening air quality. Because the DEP allows oil and gas operators to justify its permit applications with estimated and averaged air pollution data, it’s very possible that pollution and health impacts are worse than industry and regulators report. The only way to know for sure is to require real-time measurements that are transparently reported not just to the DEP, but also to the public living with that pollution.
Gov. Tom Wolf and the DEP recently announced a first step in a plan to reduce air pollution from oil and gas operations: requiring operators seeking state air permits to use available pollution control technologies and to regularly look for leaks and repair them.
Yet Pennsylvania legislators are gearing up to block this progress. One bill recently introduced by Pittsburgh-area state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Jefferson Hills, would prevent the DEP from adopting stronger methane control measures than what already has been issued by the EPA.
Such a move is foolish on two counts. The Trump administration is clearly determined to roll back environmental protections. There is even a proposal to eliminate the EPA entirely. In addition, the EPA only has rules in place to reduce methane pollution (and associated toxics) from new oil and gas operations—meaning those standards don’t touch over 100,000 currently active oil and gas wells and facilities across Pennsylvania.
State legislators should resist any attempts to cede control over Pennsylvania’s ability to keep its air clean and protect the health of its residents. The DEP needs more resources and more pressure to do its job, and to do it well—not just to issue more permits faster so that the industry can keep polluting and harming communities.
Nadia Steinzor is eastern program coordinator for Earthworks, a nonprofit environmental organization (firstname.lastname@example.org)