Brian O'Neill: Put methane in its place, not the atmosphere

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Brian O'Neill

January 15, 2017

It’s not often we see legislation that eases the way for the emission of methane and other volatile organic compounds we’d be better off not breathing, but America’s Largest Full-Time State Legislature is considering just that.

The idea is to make federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations the maximum, not the minimum, to protect oxygen-breathing life forms in Pennsylvania, a group you and your children are likely among.

The 10 Republican senators co-sponsoring the Pennsylvania bill all have been amply compensated with campaign contributions from the natural gas drilling industry, but let’s save details on that impressive cash outlay until later.

Senate Bill 1327 seeks to amend a state air pollution bill dating to 1960. The amendment would bar the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection from imposing any air pollution standards “more stringent than those promulgated’’ by the EPA. This would happen just as the new Donald Trump administration appears keen to relax those EPA restrictions.

Read enough? Click here to take action to #CutMethane.


Letting the feds provide the ceiling rather than the floor here would be a curious move for a citizenry that has this passage in the Declaration of Rights atop our Pennsylvania Constitution:

“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

One can be pro-drilling, as I am, and still be baffled by how many current lawmakers seem never to have played a hand of poker. There is no need to fold to the gas industry when Pennsylvania is the heart of the largest natural gas field outside of Iran. That gives us the cards to make reasonable demands, one of which is surely this: Don’t leak so much damned methane.

The “d” word is used advisedly. Methane, which has leaked almost every step of the way from extraction through transmission, has a global warming potential more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide.

It’s possible our state lawmakers have a better grasp of climate change than NASA, the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which revised its growing zones five years ago to reflect a generally warmer map. But even those who yawn about methane might care that the benzene, formaldehyde and other ozone-forming compounds emitted through the fracking and transmission process have been linked to asthma and worse.

What’s also true is that what’s being lost to the air is saleable as a fuel if captured.

Evidently, none of those arguments impress the 10 senate co-sponsors, including Guy Reschenthaler of Jefferson Hills, Elder Vogel Jr. of New Sewickley, Camera Bartolotta of Monongahela and Scott Wagner of York County (who formally announced his campaign for governor on Wednesday). According to Marcellus Money, a project of Common Cause Pennsylvania and Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, the gas industry contributed $8,500 to Ms. Bartolotta, $4,500 to Mr. Reschenthaler and $3,250 to Mr. Vogel in the first half of 2016.

Mr. Reschenthaler, 33, the state’s youngest senator, said further restrictions aren’t necessary because the industry already has an economic incentive to capture methane for sale. New regulations would be like “telling a dairy farmer how much milk he can spill every day.”

That’s a clever analogy but, given that spilt milk doesn’t lead to wheezing or shortness of breath, it’s not quite the same.

Mr. Reschenthaler said he wants “a robust and healthy jobs environment,” putting him on the short list for most ironic use of “healthy” and “environment” this month. It’s hard to see how jobs would be threatened by reasonable limits on methane emissions. The Environmental Defense Fund has estimated industry could cut methane emissions by 40 percent below projected 2018 levels at an average annual cost of less than a penny per 1,000 cubic feet of produced natural gas.

And where could drillers find a better play? Pennsylvania is the largest gas-producing state without a severance tax. In neighboring Ohio, Gov. John Kasich just vetoed legislation that would have expanded a sales-tax exemption that he said unfairly favored natural gas producers. He’d like to see Ohio’s oil and gas severance tax increased.

One expects Gov. Tom Wolf would veto any effort to strip Pennsylvania of its constitutional mandate to keep the air clean. The state DEP is developing requirements to reduce methane leaks. But at the moment the $9.5 million that natural gas industry has contributed to state candidates since 2009, and the $59 million it has spent lobbying against regulations, is looking like one hell of an investment.

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