Pa. rule to tackle air pollution from oil and gas wells advances

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Laura Legere

December 17, 2019

HARRISBURG — A proposed rule to cut down on air pollution released by Pennsylvania’s thousands of existing oil and gas wells is expected to eliminate tens of thousands of tons of methane emissions each year — but it won’t target the greenhouse gas directly nor will it require leak surveys at the vast majority of the state’s older wells.

The state’s environmental rule-making board voted to advance the proposal on Tuesday for a period of public comment that will open early next year.

The long-anticipated rule was promised by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2016 as part of a broader strategy to shrink the amount of climate-warming gases wafting out of both new and existing equipment used for producing Pennsylvania’s oil and gas.

Instead of directly curbing methane, the regulation builds on a federal rule that targets smog-forming gases called volatile organic compounds released from tanks, pumps, compressors and leaky parts.

Natural gas is mostly methane — a greenhouse gas that is 86 times more damaging at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide in the first two decades after it is released. Tamping down methane leaks from the oil and gas sector is seen as a relatively quick, cheap and effective step among more dramatic shifts in energy use that will be necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“The new regulations will help identify and prevent leaks from existing wells and infrastructure, while protecting the environment, reducing climate change and helping businesses reduce the waste of a valuable product,” Mr. Wolf said.

364,000 cars off the road

Unprocessed gas from Marcellus and Utica shale wells in Pennsylvania can range from 75% to 98% methane and from 0.1% to 10% volatile organic compounds by volume, according to state Department of Environmental Protection data.

Volatile organic compounds are building blocks for ground-level ozone pollution, or smog, “a public health and welfare hazard that contributes to asthma and other lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said.

DEP says the proposed controls will reduce volatile organic compound emissions by about 4,400 tons per year and methane emissions by about 75,600 tons per year.

The annual methane reductions are the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking 364,000 passenger vehicles off the road for a year.

The rule is expected to apply to about 8,400 shale gas wells, 550 compressor stations and 10 natural gas processing facilities, DEP said.

Largely missing from the rule’s leak detection requirements are Pennsylvania’s 71,000 producing conventional wells because 99.5% of them — all but about 200 wells — produce too little oil or gas to qualify based on the proposed thresholds.

Charles Boritz from DEP’s air quality bureau told the Environmental Quality Board on Tuesday that the agency does not have a good estimate of how much methane the state’s conventional oil and gas industry emits because that data isn’t reported.

But he said conventional wells will have to comply with sections of the rule that require more stringent controls on equipment that releases gas.

Most of the total estimated emissions reductions are expected to come from the conventional sector.

Still, the agency said in an analysis of its proposal, “Overall, the department does not anticipate that this proposed rule-making will result in any significant adverse impact on small oil and gas operators.” 

Cost to the industry

DEP’s proposed requirements are projected to cost the industry about $35 million a year and save it about $10 million a year because natural gas that is being lost now will instead be captured and sold.

Spread across the 5,040 companies that DEP thinks will be affected by the rule, the average cost per operator is $5,000 after factoring in the gas savings, DEP said.

Marcellus Shale Coalition president David Spigelmyer said the unconventional gas industry is “laser focused” on safely managing methane and related emissions. “We do, however, have concerns about potential costs as well as DEP’s timing given ongoing federal regulatory activity associated with existing source emissions,” he said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to withdraw the guidelines that form the basis of DEP’s proposed rule. But state regulators said Tuesday that they have an obligation and the authority to move forward to reduce air pollution even if the federal rules are withdrawn.

Environmental groups welcomed the rule, while urging DEP to remove the provisions that exempt low-producing wells from the leak detection requirements.

Robert Routh, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, said routine, on-the-ground surveys are a crucial part of any program to detect escaping gases.

“That’s where you locate a lot of leaks,” he said.

Environmental groups are also concerned that going after methane indirectly is not the most effective way to reduce emissions. Mr. McDonnell raised a similar concern in comments to federal regulators late last month over a separate proposal that would ease methane requirements at new well sites nationwide. 

In 14 Pennsylvania counties, volatile organic compounds make up only a small fraction — 1% or less — of the average mixture of raw natural gas from shale wells, according to DEP data.

But the state department says for most types of equipment, except storage tanks, there is no minimum level of volatile organic compounds under which emissions sources will be exempted from its proposed rules.

Equipment that is designed to leak some natural gas will have to leak less of it, regardless of the concentration of volatile organic compounds in the gas, DEP said. Likewise, the requirements for detecting and repairing unintentional leaks will be the same whether the leaking natural gas is nearly pure methane or heavy with the volatile compounds.

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