By Dan Grossman and Davitt Woodwell
Given a lack of federal leadership to reduce greenhouse emissions, Pennsylvania has moved to join our neighboring states in taking real action on climate. Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order committing the Commonwealth to substantial greenhouse gas emission reductions: 26 percent by 2025, and 80 percent by 2050.
Pennsylvanians are in the middle of the climate conversation, and for good reason. Carbon emissions from our power sector are the fifth highest in the nation while Pennsylvania’s oil and gas sector is estimated to emit more than 500,000 metric tons of methane emissions annually – five times higher than industry reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
But there is significant reason for hope. Meaningful, affordable, and entirely achievable first steps that are already moving in Harrisburg can be taken now to ratchet down climate-altering emissions.
First, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order this past October directing the DEP to develop a rule that would limit Pennsylvania’s carbon emissions from the electricity sector and pave the way for collaboration with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).
RGGI is a multi-state, market-based program that sets declining limits on carbon emissions. By linking Pennsylvania to a proven and flexible market-based program, the state’s power sector can achieve significant emissions reductions and invest in our communities through programs to deploy energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other projects that reduce emissions and costs in Pennsylvania.
Resources for the Future and others predict that carbon emissions in Pennsylvania will rise in the very near future – nearly 25 percent by 2026 – unless the state starts taking action now to limit them. With a market-based carbon limit in place, companies will find the most cost-effective ways to lower their emissions. On top of that, the program can also help support existing and new zero-emission power plants in the state.
Notably, states that are already participating in this program have reduced their overall carbon emissions by 36 percent over the past decade.
Gov. Wolf’s executive order on RGGI promises a draft rule by July 2020, and we encourage the Governor to move quickly on this critical climate issue.
The support for this bold action is widespread. A March 2019 poll found that 79 percent of Pennsylvanians support a proposal to zero out carbon pollution from power plants – and that Pennsylvanians overall prefer lawmakers who support strong action to combat climate change. Commonwealth voters are united on the imperative to move forward.
The second step toward meaningful action is Gov. Wolf’s proposal to expand protections for methane and other pollution from the thousands of existing oil and gas wells in the state. Last year, the DEP implemented policies to reduce methane emissions from new and modified sources in the sector, and the move to address existing sources will fill a critical gap.
Over the next few months, Pennsylvanians across the Commonwealth will have the opportunity to comment on this important measure to reduce emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. With this proposal, Pennsylvania is poised to join the vanguard of states across the country taking commonsense action to cut methane emissions.
Thanks to cost-effective technologies that exist today, oil and gas companies can reduce nearly 50 percent of methane emissions at no net cost, capturing more product to bring to market. It’s no surprise that major industry players such as Shell and ExxonMobil – both with operations in Pennsylvania – are supportive of methane regulations.
A 60-day public comment period, including three public hearings, will start soon, affording Pennsylvanians the opportunity to speak in support of bold and commonsense rules that clean up our air, protect our health and have a positive impact for Pennsylvania’s economy.
Given Pennsylvania’s methane waste problem and our status as the second-largest natural gas-producing state in the nation, it is imperative that DEP adopt as strong a rule as possible – one that provides the certainty industry needs with the flexibility to deploy emerging technologies.
We encourage DEP to make two important changes to their proposed rule. First, they should remove a nearly wholesale exemption for low-producing wells that are responsible for more than half of the state’s oil and gas-related methane pollution.
Second, they should eliminate a step-down provision that releases operators from the responsibility to inspect equipment simply because previous inspections did not reveal significant leaks. The experience of other states and the latest research points to the fact that large emission events can happen any time, no matter the age or the size of the well.
Deep decarbonization of the state’s energy sector, coupled with direct regulation of methane emissions, represents a critical, cost-effective path forward in the fight against climate change. Gov. Wolf has put workable solutions on the table that can make meaningful progress for Pennsylvania. It’s time to move them forward.
Dan Grossman is the national director of state programs for the Environmental Defense Fund. Davitt Woodwell is the president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.