In Pittsburgh, Trump’s EPA announces methane rule rollback for gas wells, pipelines

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

In a ceremony just outside downtown Pittsburgh Thursday, President Donald Trump’s top environmental official formally put an end to Obama-era rules cutting down methane emissions from natural gas wells.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the change, which also applies to storage facilities, pipelines, and processing sites, will save natural gas companies more than $100 million a year in compliance costs.

But opponents, including the odd bedfellows of big gas companies and environmentalists, argue the rule was a responsible move to reduce climate change. They say revoking it will further the release of a potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

The rule required companies to install peak detection equipment and fix leaks, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. It also will end EPA greenhouse gas and smog emissions, oversight of pipelines, and transmission systems, the Wall Street Journal reported. The rule also will exempt small wells from certain reporting requirements.

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, degrades quicker than carbon dioxide, but can be between 25 to 70 times stronger than its more common counterpart.

Methane concentrations in the environment, after leveling off in the 2000s, have once again begun to climb in the last decade, according to federal data.

Containing its release, which has increased in recent years, is viewed as a top priority to fight climate change, according to advocates and experts.

But while the change was officially announced in the heart of Pennsylvania’s gas producing shale fields, experts said the rollback will likely have little to no impact on the commonwealth’s own methane emissions, which are governed by equally strict state rules.

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Instead, it could have a bigger impact nationwide, said Arvind Ravikumar, an assistant professor of energy engineering at Harrisburg University who studies methane emissions in natural gas. As a whole, he called the rule change “bizarre.”

That’s because everyone from big energy companies and  environmentalists to academia agree that tracking methane emissions is good, Ravikumar told the Capital-Star.

For environmentalists and academics, it means fewer greenhouse gases escape into the atmosphere.

For the companies, including international giants such BP and Exxon Mobil and Pennsylvania’s own homegrown firms, it means less of their product is wasted in leaks.

“We must be accountable and responsible for understanding, assessing, and improving our methane management practices” and mitigate climate change, Diana Charletta, CEO of Pittsburgh-based Equitrans Midstream Corporation, said in a statement last fall opposing the proposed rollback. 

The company is a spinoff of big Pennsylvania driller EQT, which is focused on transporting and gathering fracked gas.

However, the change is backed by smaller producers, who see in the 2016 regulation an additional cost on doing business.

The amount of carbon pollution that gas wells leak is a constant source of debate, but recent reports suggest that leakage is even higher than previously estimated.

In 2019, the New York Times reported that a 20-day methane leak at an Ohio natural gas well released as much methane as the entire oil and gas industry in Norway releases in a year.

The rule change will not impact Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry — the second biggest in the country — said Neil Shader, a spokesperson or the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In 2018, the state implemented new methane rules in permits for future gas wells. A regulation to cover wells already drilled, which number in the thousands, is in its final rule making process. Both require Pennsylvania gas drillers to use the “best available technology” to find and fix methane leaks.

According to the DEP’s greenhouse gas inventory, drilling, processing and transporting natural gas creates emissions equal to 9.58 million tons of carbon dioxide. That’s 4 percent of the state’s new carbon emissions.

Ravikumar said the Obama rule had kickstarted innovation among tech firms to help producers comply. Without a national rule, he said the cost for small companies in states with similar regulations, such as Pennsylvania, could increase even further.

Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund were already threatening a lawsuit over the change.

“The Trump administration’s decision to reverse course is deeply and fundamentally flawed,” EDF attorney Peter Zalzal said in a statement. “Eliminating these safeguards would ignore the overwhelming body of scientific evidence documenting the urgent need to reduce methane pollution.”