Pa. environmental board will vet proposed rules restricting potent greenhouse gas emissions

    A Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA Route 87, Lycoming County. Nicholas A. Tonelli | Flickr Commons

    Three years after they were first announced, new regulations restricting methane emissions from existing natural gas wells will get a hearing before a statewide rulemaking body this year, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said Tuesday.

    The move comes as Republican President Donald Trump rolls back restrictions on the potent greenhouse gas.

    Lawmakers from both parties and environmental advocates gathered in the Capitol rotunda Tuesday afternoon to decry the White House’s decision to loosen methane regulations and thank Wolf for pushing the new rules forward.

    Wolf rolled out his methane restrictions in January 2016. Two years later, in the summer of 2018, the governor and the Department of Environmental Protection created permits restricting methane emissions from any new natural gas wells or pipelines. 

    But permits that restrict existing wells have taken longer.

    “There’s no sense of urgency,” Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, a longtime environmental advocate, told the Capital-Star.

    Vitali said he’s collecting signatures for a letter asking the administration to get the rule on the agenda for the next meeting of the Environmental Quality Board in October.

    If the board takes the first step to approve the rule, it will still likely be over a year before the new regulation is implemented. The restrictions would still need to traverse the state’s long regulatory review process — including two swings for comment through the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

    In a statement, Wolf said the state is “already seeing the results of climate change in Pennsylvania — increased severe weather, oppressively hot summers, and record-setting temperatures.”

    “While the White House continues to do everything in its power to pull back environmental regulations, I am fighting for policies that move Pennsylvania forward in addressing climate change and protecting our shared environment,” the Democrat continued. 

    Methane does not remain as long as carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. But it is “84 times more potent” because of how much heat it absorbs, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. 

    Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry emitted methane equivalent to 1.3 million tons of CO2 in 2017, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    The Wolf administration’s proposed rule has been under regulatory review since late 2018, and does not specifically limit methane. Instead, the permit limits the emissions of volatile organic compounds — which can lead to smog — to comply with 2016 federal rulemaking. 

    In restricting emissions of VOCs, the Department of Environmental Protection said it hopes to also eliminate as much as 20,000 tons of methane each year, the Associated Press reported. 

    As it’s now written, the rule will also exempt many smaller, often conventional, gas wells from regulation. 

    The Marcellus Shale Coalition, the natural gas industry’s trade group, says it has some concerns about the administration’s proposed regulations.

    “Our industry is fully committed to ensuring methane — the product we produce and sell, as well as related emissions — is effectively and safely managed,” David Spigelmyer, the trade group’s president, said in a statement.

    The coalition said it’s working with the administration to address its concerns.

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