By Isaac Brown
Natural gas has succeeded in replacing dirtier fuels including coal as part of Pennsylvania’s energy mix. However, unless natural gas resources are developed responsibly – including the capture of methane emissions and leaks – it can be argued that we are replacing one pollution source for another.
Fortunately, this is something on which there is a growing chorus of agreement, and even the oil and gas industry itself has recognized the importance of methane regulations.
Methane is the primary component of natural gas and when it disappears into thin air, the industry is not only wasting the product it aims to sell, it is also polluting our air and harming the climate.
A 2018 report estimated that Pennsylvania’s oil and gas methane emissions are nearly five times higher than what is being reported to the state, or approximately 520,000 tons. In fact, the annual climate impact of this pollution is greater than that from all of the cars in Pennsylvania combined.
Methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas that is responsible for about 25 percent of the climate change we are experiencing today. If we do not address the methane waste problem, it will lead to more severe weather events and storms extending into flooding.
Climate change can also lead to lower crop yields for Pennsylvania farms due to increased temperatures and more pests as well as vector-borne diseases threatening public health. The good news is that we can both protect Pennsylvanians and ensure more responsible energy development.
Methane mitigation companies are in the business of finding and fixing leaks at well sites and compressor stations and along natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines.
Often, a repair is simple and it’s almost always cost-effective. When a company cuts methane waste, it means more natural gas can be brought to market that helps to offset the cost of mitigation. The International Energy Agency estimates that roughly 50 percent of methane leaks can be repaired at no net cost to producers.
Consequently, a growing chorus of oil and gas companies such as Shell and ExxonMobil/XTO (which operate in Pennsylvania) as well BP have gone on record in support of the need to regulate methane. BP even took it a further, supporting regulations and aiming to be at net zero emissions by 2050.
These companies see cutting methane emissions as both an economic and environmental imperative that supports their social license to operate as the call for climate action in the U.S. and across the globe grows ever louder. Pennsylvanians would welcome this action as a 2019 poll confirms that Pennsylvanians overall prefer lawmakers who are willing to act on climate.
As the industry seeks ways to operate more responsibly, efficiently and cost-effectively, companies engaged in leak detection and repair continue to both expand their workforce and develop newer and better technologies in the service of capturing previously wasted product.
For instance, some companies are now deploying aerial monitoring and drone technologies that can track emissions and tell producers where their product is being wasted.
Other companies are starting to find commercial success with continuous monitoring technologies and can provide real-time information for when a leak occurs. Some of these technologies are incubating in-state at academic institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University.
This is where Gov.Tom Wolf and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) come in. Gov. Wolf signed an executive order in January 2019 that seeks to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050, from 2005 levels.
In support of that, DEP is currently advancing a rule-making process that seeks to cut emissions of methane and other air pollutants from the thousands of existing sources of pollution spanning oil and gas development and transmission. A public comment period and public hearings on the rule will soon be underway.
A recent study of oil and gas producers in Colorado – which enacted comprehensive methane standards in 2014 – found the majority (70 percent) consider that state’s efforts to cut methane emissions to be very cost effective.
We urge the Wolf administration and DEP to move deliberately through the rule-making process to effect protective, cost-effective standards.
Regulations will address climate impacts right now, improve Pennsylvanians’ lives right now, and buttress our economy right now. There’s no time to waste.
Isaac Brown is the executive director for the Center for Methane Emissions Solutions, a group that represents the interests of American businesses that develop and manufacture cutting edge technologies.