By Laura Legere
June 7, 2018
New shale gas wells in Pennsylvania will have to meet permit conditions that directly control emissions of the greenhouse gas methane for the first time, the Wolf administration announced Thursday as it released final versions of contentious air quality permits that had been under development for two years.
The two general permits will apply to new natural gas wells tapping the Marcellus and Utica shales, and new compression and processing stations built along pipelines. Both permits will go into effect on Aug. 8.
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell said the permits “are some of the first in the nation to comprehensively address methane emissions from all equipment and processes, and they also address other types of air pollution that contribute to poor air quality.”
Methane is the second-most prevalent greenhouse gas released from human activities after carbon dioxide, but it is more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere over the short term.
Natural gas is mostly made up of methane, so minimizing leaks means companies keep more of their product to sell.
That was the point emphasized by Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Spigelmyer, who said Thursday that the industry is already “focused on ensuring methane and related emissions are managed safely and effectively.”
“We remain concerned about imposing additional requirements through operating permits, particularly those that exceed DEP’s statutory authority,” he said.
The new well site permit, known as GP-5A, will supplement an updated permit exemption process that Pennsylvania has been using since 2013 to indirectly manage air pollution from wells without requiring companies to get air permits before beginning construction.
The exemption process will still be used for operations considered temporary, like drilling and fracking.
Early drafts of the permits drew criticism from industry and leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature, who said the proposed requirements were obstructive and appeared to skirt the review process for writing new regulations.
DEP made changes to the drafts and opened a second public comment period this spring.
An array of conservation groups — nominally representing everyone from moms to veterans to conservatives — applauded the announcement.
Andrew Williams, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the state’s rules will surpass federal requirements by cutting down on venting during pipeline cleaning and monitoring operations called “pigging” as well as during maintenance procedures for removing accumulated liquids from gas wells.
Companies will also initially have to perform quarterly leak detection and repair surveys at new well sites before being allowed to switch to less frequent surveys if they can show that less than 2 percent of their equipment components are leaking.
Environmental groups are now pushing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to move on to addressing methane emissions from the state’s thousands of existing natural gas wells — something the administration has committed to taking up, albeit more slowly.
DEP officials have said they intend to focus for now on meeting new federal guidelines for cutting smog-causing pollutants from existing wells, which would reduce methane emissions as a side benefit in some areas.
But in March, the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency proposed to withdraw those guidelines, which would leave state regulators without a base to build on.
Mr. McDonnell wrote to the EPA in April to say that Pennsylvania regulators oppose the withdrawal. “Without federal standards,” he wrote, “it is difficult for states to independently establish emission standards on a level competitive playing field.”