Pennsylvania Advances Rule to Restrict Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Production

Published February 25, 2020

Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board (EQB) overwhelmingly passed a regulation to reduce methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from oil and gas operations in the state.

The rule, adopted by a vote of 18 in favor and one against on December 18, 2019, was drafted by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) at the direction of Gov. Tom Wolf.

Adopting Federal Recommendations

The rule establishes limits on methane, VOCs, and some other emissions, recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its Control Techniques Guidelines for the Oil and Natural Gas Industry, developed under then-President Barack Obama.

DEP determined lower emission thresholds should be imposed on storage vessels and unconventional (fracked) well sites, in order to safeguard public health and reduce the harm from human-induced climate change. In keeping with DEP’s determination, EQB’s proposal would impose emission limits based on the use of reasonably available control technology, defined by EPA as “the lowest emission limitation that a particular source is capable of meeting by the application of control technology that is reasonably available considering technological and economic feasibility.”

New Inspections, Broader Scope

EQB’s rule would also require owners or operators of tanks and unconventional wells to conduct monthly audio, visual, and olfactory inspections and quarterly leak detection inspections, and to repair any components found to be causing leaks of fugitive emissions at their facilities.

Going beyond even EPA’s recommendation, EQB’s rule would apply to owners and operators of any and all oil and natural gas tanks and unconventional wells that are sources of methane or VOC emissions which were in existence on or before the rule’s effective date. EPA’s recommendations applied only to unconventional wells and storage tanks installed on or after August 10, 2013.

Cost-Effectiveness Questioned

Regulating greenhouse gas emissions at the state level is futile, says Jordan McGillis, a policy analyst with the Institute for Energy Research.

“According to the Pennsylvania DEP, this rule would reduce methane emissions by 75,600 tons per year,” McGillis said. “That may sound like a large sum, but in the context of global emissions it is less than trivial.

“The 75,600 tons touted by DEP represent about five one-thousandths of 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions using a common conversion to methane’s carbon dioxide equivalent, a fraction so small as to be effectively unmeasurable,” McGillis said. “Meanwhile, a conservative estimate of the cost to Pennsylvania’s productivity is $35 million annually.”

Disproportionate Local Impact

McGillis says the rule would disproportionally affect smaller Pennsylvania producers.

“Large multinationals have the capacity to absorb the costs related to changes like this, while small, homegrown Pennsylvania operators will struggle to meet the new requirements,” McGillis said. “Adding insult to injury, Gov. Wolf had the gall to suggest this new rule would benefit the industry by ‘helping businesses reduce the waste of a valuable product.’

“The idea that businesses need the wisdom of a state governor to make the most of resources at their disposal is laughable,” said McGillis.

The rule is currently being reviewed by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. If he approves it, a 60-day public comment period will follow.

Kevin Stone ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.