Address methane now: Gov. Wolf must tackle critical climate issue

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Editorial Board

October 1, 2019

Once a legendary supplier to our nation’s coal bin, Pennsylvania evolved into one of the United States’ leading providers of natural gas, responsible for more than 20% of U.S. gas production. This also means that Pennsylvania is one of the country’s leading producers of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is pegged as a major contributor to global warming.

The Trump administration is relaxing federal requirements for the monitoring and fixing of emission leaks in pipelines or wells. This places the onus on individual states to pick up the slack that results.

Gov. Tom Wolf is promoting a plan that is inadequate in holding accountable Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry for doing its part as an environmental steward.

Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry emits lots of methane each year. By one estimate: 520,000 tons, according to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group. The state Department of Environmental Protection pegs the number at 112,100 tons, based on reporting from the industry itself. Either way, it’s a lot.

Methane emissions trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere at 84 times the rate of carbon dioxide and are responsible for approximately 25% of the increase in global warming, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Despite these grim numbers, Pennsylvania has issued proposals that fail to get to the root of the methane issue. In April, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced proposed regulations on existing wells that would place controls not on methane itself but on volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are found in the “wet” natural gas in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Wolf administration has argued that because natural gas contains VOCs, reducing VOC leakage will reduce methane emissions as well.

That’s true. However, reducing VOCs only minimally touches “dry” natural gas methane emissions that are found throughout the state. That’s because “dry” natural gas methane contains minimal VOCs. Dry natural gas is 85% methane, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Mr. Wolf has said it is critical to control methane to reduce the impact of climate change, but his proposed regulations on the state’s existing natural gas wells are weak and meek. In fact, they appear to be designed to meet the far too narrow requirements of the federal Clean Air Act. Pennsylvania is an Ozone Transport Region and, as such, must abide by specific Clean Air Act requirements. But those requirements deal with VOCs — not methane, per se. This is troublesome because of the minimal VOC component to methane emissions from dry wells.

The CAA gives specific guidance about VOCs but not methane. So Mr. Wolf’s proposal is more about compliance with pre-existing federal legislation than directly addressing the issue of methane emissions. He needs to change his focus.

The Wolf administration should amend its proposed rules to target methane, not VOCs. This more direct approach would facilitate the implementation of new technologies, which focus on methane detection rather than VOC detection. This would also ensure that methane is regulated throughout the state, not just where “wet” natural gas is drilled.

The state Environmental Quality Board, an independent board which considers petitions to change DEP regulations, is expected to review the governor’s proposed regulations for methane emissions this November. Mr. Wolf and his staff at the DEP should work expeditiously between now and then to create a more robust set of regulations, crafted in coordination with scientists and experts in the field, that will reduce methane emissions and Pennsylvania’s role in an ever-growing climate crisis.

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