Environmentalists question Pennsylvania's new methane rule

The administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is pushing a regulation to control methane emissions from existing natural gas facilities that doesn't directly target the potent greenhouse gas, raising alarm among environmental groups.

Instead, the proposed rule sets limits on smog-forming volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, emitted by Pennsylvania's enormous gas industry, with methane reduction listed as a "co-benefit." The rule, which is working its way through the regulatory process, doesn't establish specific emissions standards for methane, the primary component of natural gas and a key contributor to climate change.

Administration officials say they're under a federal mandate to do something about VOCs, a component of ground-level ozone that can worsen bronchitis and asthma and contribute to premature death from respiratory disease. They say that controlling VOCs will also help reduce fugitive methane emissions since both are a result of gas production.

"The techniques for reducing VOCs are the same as the ones for reducing methane, so you're getting at the problem by doing the VOC regulation," said Sam Robinson, Wolf's deputy chief of staff for energy and the environment. "We think that that's a smart strategy that reduces a significant amount of methane."

Environmental groups criticize that approach, however, questioning why the state wouldn't directly regulate the gas industry's methane emissions. Pennsylvania is the nation's No. 2 gas-producing state after Texas.

The proposed regulation "took the focus completely away from the methane part of the equation, which, by greenhouse gas emission standards, is the largest issue at natural gas operations in Pennsylvania," said Peter DeCarlo, a Drexel University air pollution researcher who has called on Pennsylvania to take stronger action.

The proposed rule, which goes before an advisory committee on Thursday before heading to the Environmental Quality Board, the state's primary environmental rulemaking body, is part of Wolf's 2016 plan to curb gas industry methane emissions.

Last summer, regulators began enforcing tougher standards for methane and other air pollutants at new gas production sites. Environmentalists said they expected the state to apply the same stringent standards to existing wells, compressor stations and other gas installations. Wolf's 2016 methane plan included a pledge to "to reduce leaks at existing oil and natural gas facilities" through new regulation.

"It is a big missed opportunity if they do not add methane and expand the scope of the rule," said Robert Routh, an attorney for the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, who has met with DEP regulators. "It leaves a lot of potential methane reductions on the table at a time when we need to aggressively ramp up our approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There's no reason to do just the bare minimum given the extent of the methane problem in this state."

Robinson, the Wolf administration official, said it was always the administration's intention to use the new VOC rule to achieve methane reductions. The proposed regulation would remove more than 20,000 tons of methane from the air each year, according to an estimate from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Industry officials and environmentalists differ over how much methane leaks into the air. Energy companies in the vast Marcellus Shale gas field say they have an economic interest in curbing emissions of their main product, and have already made major strides toward doing so.

"Our industry is committed to ensuring methane, the product we produce and sell, as well as related emissions are effectively and safely managed," said David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group. He urged the Department of Environmental Protection to hold off on any new regulations.