The Lead

Environmental proponents to state Senate panel: Pa. needs better methane regulations

By: - April 23, 2019 1:54 pm

Rebecca Kiernan, senior resilience coordinator for the city of Pittsburgh, and Andrew Williams, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, testify before a Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

Panelists at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing on Tuesday slammed the state’s proposed regulations on methane gas, and called on state lawmakers to let the Department of Environmental Protection exercise more regulatory authority.

The hearing at the Teamster Temple in Pittsburgh brought environmental policymakers and advocates together to discuss methane emissions across Pennsylvania, including a new Wolf administration proposal regulating volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, a smog producing chemical produced in gas drilling.

Andrew Williams, a lobbyist for the Environmental Defense Fund, told the committee that the rule “falls far behind” comprehensive regulation in such states as Colorado and California.

A regulatory committee at the Department of Environmental Protection approved the proposed rule last week. It will advance to another rule-making committee this summer.

If approved finally, the rule would fulfill an Obama administration mandate. But critics say it would allow large amounts of methane gas to continue to escape into the atmosphere, further contributing to global warming.

Williams and other environmental advocates said Tuesday that the rule should be expanded to target methane — a component of natural gas that contributes to climate change. They also want DEP to remove provisions in the rule that would exempt most wells in the state from regulation.

Rob Altenburg, director of the PennFuture Energy Center, said the rule is a sufficient way to comply with federal law and reduce smog-producing gases across the state.

But as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions and aggressively fight climate change, the regulation is lacking. Altenburg said pushback from the Republican-dominated General Assembly has made the DEP under Wolf reluctant to pursue stronger regulations.

“DEP has chosen to take a path where they regulate VOCs in large part because there’s a federal mandate to do that,” Altenburg said. “It’s much harder to get them to say, ‘We need to regulate this because it’s the right thing for Pennsylvania.'”

Parts of the federal Air Pollution Control Act limit states’ abilities to enact regulations that exceed minimum federal requirements. But there are some areas where states can exceed federal standards with good reason, Altenburg said, such as by enacting measures that would combat climate change.

Federal regulations aside, the state still has reason to be concerned when it brings strict regulations before the Republican-controlled General Assembly, Altenburg said.

Altenburg said bills that would weaken DEP’s regulatory power or put new burdens on its regulatory process emerge in the Capitol every year.

The “constant tension” with the General Assembly ultimately weakens the agency’s regulatory will, Altenburg said.

In addition to asking the Wolf administration to expand the VOC regulation, PennFuture is calling on legislators to stand up for the DEP when they hear proposals that would undermine its power.

“We need people to say, ‘There are good people, engineers and experts [at the DEP] who want to do the right thing,” Altenburg said. “But when we see regulations that say legislators can veto DEP proposals or strip its authority to regulate, that makes it that much more difficult for them to do their jobs.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.