Pa. drafts new limits on air pollution from gas wells as feds reconsider rules

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Laura Legere

December 12, 2018

Pennsylvania environmental regulators are rolling out draft rules for controlling air pollution from the state’s thousands of existing oil and gas wells on Thursday, but the long-awaited measures have a shaky federal foundation.

The state Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed rules for cutting smog-forming compounds are based on Obama-era guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the Trump administration is proposing to withdraw.

The new state proposal is designed to curb direct emissions and leaks of volatile organic compounds from older well sites, storage tanks and other oil and gas facilities that aren’t covered by air pollution rules that DEP adopted earlier this year.

The proposed rules would not directly control emissions of methane, but they are expected to cut down on leaks of the powerful greenhouse gas as a side benefit because volatile organic compounds and methane commingle in natural gas.

Companies would also have to search for, and repair, methane leaks as part of routine monitoring surveys included in the proposal.

In documents prepared for an advisory board meeting where DEP will discuss the draft on Thursday, the agency said it plans to develop regulations for existing oil and gas facilities “despite EPA’s proposed withdrawal” because doing so will demonstrate that additional emissions reductions from existing oil and gas sites “are technically and economically feasible.”

The U.S. EPA said in March that withdrawing its guidelines “would not prevent states from independently taking steps to reduce emissions from the oil and gas industry if they choose to do so.”

Still, Pennsylvania DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell opposed the withdrawal proposal, writing to the U.S. EPA in April that “without federal standards, it is difficult for states to independently establish emission standards on a level competitive playing field.”

Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, said DEP has the authority under state law to move forward with its rules regardless of whether the federal EPA withdraws its guidelines.

“And obviously environmental groups will hold them to that commitment,” he said.

DEP spokesman Neil Shader said whether the department will have to adjust its strategy will depend on how, and if, federal regulators withdraw their guidance. “DEP would need to evaluate the situation in order to be sure regulatory actions complied with the state’s Air Pollution Control Act,” he said.

David Spigelmyer, president of the Robinson-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, advised state regulators to wait for a decision on the federal guidance before moving forward with their proposal.

“While we’re still reviewing the proposal, we do have initial concerns about potential costs as well as DEP’s timing given ongoing federal regulatory activity associated with existing source emissions," he said.

DEP’s proposal covers equipment like storage tanks, compressors, pneumatic controllers and pumps at existing well sites, processing plants and gathering stations.

It largely mirrors the EPA guidance except for requiring more frequent leak detection surveys — four times a year instead of twice — and maintaining the state’s stricter standards for tanks installed after August 2013.

Gov. Tom Wolf laid out a strategy in 2016 for curbing methane emissions across the state’s shale gas industry, including new wells, existing wells and pipelines. Methane is particularly potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. Other major man-made sources of methane include agriculture and waste.

Nearly 7,000 shale wells were drilled in Pennsylvania before the state adopted requirements for limiting emissions from new wells in August 2013. Another 4,400 shale wells were drilled before DEP updated its air pollution rules for new wells this August.

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