Pennsylvania Should Enact Methane Regulations

MethaneImage by Magnascan
Op-Ed by State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware/Montgomery

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry is a major methane emitter. More than five and a half years ago, Governor Tom Wolf promised regulations to reduce methane emissions from existing oil and gas industry operations. It’s time to finalize these regulations.

Methane reduction is critical in addressing climate change. “Urgent steps must be taken to reduce methane emissions this decade” and the “fossil fuel sector has the greatest potential for targeted mitigation by 2030,” said a recent report by the U.N. Environment Programme and Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

The short-term climate benefits are particularly important. “By reducing emissions of methane — which has more than 80 times the warming power of CO2 for the first 20 years it’s in the atmosphere — we can hit the brakes on the increasingly rapid warming responsible for stronger storms, hotter fire seasons and rapidly melting Arctic Sea ice,” said the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in a recent paper.

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Pennsylvania is the second-largest natural gas-producing state and its methane emissions have a significant impact on global climate change.

About 12,800 unconventional gas wells (think fracking) have been drilled in Pennsylvania since 2004. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is leaking at well pads, storage tanks, compressor stations, processing facilities, and along pipelines. These leaks are largely due to outdated and malfunctioning equipment. Regulations which require state-of-the-art equipment and frequent leak inspections will reduce this leakage.

In May of 2020, an EDF analysis found that Pennsylvania’s oil and gas operators emit more than of 1.1 million tons of methane annually. “The staggering scale of the methane problem in Pennsylvania makes Gov. Wolf’s proposal to reduce emissions from existing oil and gas operations all the more critical,” said Dan Grossman of the EDF.

In announcing its methane reduction strategy in January of 2016, the Wolf administration stated, “Reducing methane leaks from the oil and gas sector is one of the essential steps needed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the impacts of climate change.”

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The regulations proposed by the Wolf administration actually don’t regulate methane directly— rather only indirectly through volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are chemicals found to varying degrees in natural gas. (Unfortunately, this approach is less effective in reducing methane leakage)

These VOC regulations have been moving through the approval process at a snail’s pace. They were brought before the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) in December of 2019 -two years after promised- and the public comment period closed about a year ago. The regulations next need to be considered by the Air Quality Technical Advisory Committee, then approved in their final form by the EQB. No date has been set for either meeting.

Since 2016, the Wolf administration has given numerous reasons for the delays- each of which seemed legitimate at the time. However, Looking back over the last 5 ½ years there appears to be a distinct lack of urgency in finalizing these regulations.

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Time is running out to address climate change. At least five other gas-producing states regulate methane leakage from existing sources (California, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Texas). Pennsylvania should join this group without further delay.

State Representative Greg Vitali (D., Delaware, Montgomery) is the Democratic Chairman of the House Environmental Resource and Energy Committee.

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