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Pa. Gov. Wolf targets methane emissions from oil and gas

| Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, 3:23 p.m.
File photo of part of the MarkWest Houston 1, 2, and 3 Complex in Washington County. The plant processes natural gas coming from nearby Marcellus wells.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Gov. Tom Wolf discusses the state budget during a stop at AlphaLab Gear in East Liberty, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2016.

Gov. Tom Wolf is moving to toughen regulations on methane emissions from Pennsylvania's oil and gas industry by directing his administration to write rules for existing wells and equipment and to revamp permits for new sources of pollution.

The moves — announced Tuesday during a live video stream on Facebook discussing climate and environmental issues — follow through on Wolf's promise to more stringently control emissions and answer calls from environmentalists concerned that pending federal rules cover only new wells and facilities.

Shale gas companies that made Pennsylvania the No. 2 natural gas producer in the country over the past decade say they are using equipment and systems to detect and stop leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas. Emissions have dropped nationwide, despite a huge increase in oil and gas production through shale fracking.

Wolf said he wants to require use of those protections.

“These are commonsense steps that Pennsylvania can take to protect our air and reduce waste for industry,” he said. “The best companies understand the business case for reducing methane leaks, as what doesn't leak into the atmosphere can be used for energy production.”

Environmental groups that say the industry can't be trusted to police itself applauded the announcement. The industry, which has battled Wolf over his push to raise taxes on shale gas, called the rules unnecessary, given drops in emissions.

“These positive results are a function of the industry's widespread use of operational best practices and continuous investments aimed at protecting and enhancing our environment,” said Dave Spigelmyer, president of the North Fayette-based Marcellus Shale Coalition. “We welcome Gov. Wolf's efforts to expand new manufacturing opportunities in the commonwealth through affordable homegrown natural gas and are committed to working with lawmakers as well as state officials to focus on common-sense policies that encourage job-creating natural gas development.”

The American Petroleum Institute complained that new rules could limit natural gas development that has slowed because of low prices. Companies drilled 40 percent fewer shale wells in the state last year compared to 2014 as gas prices dropped by more than 50 percent.

Wolf said the rules would cost companies “a fraction of a percent of industry revenue in Pennsylvania,” though his administration did not release an estimate.

The Department of Environmental Protection will write a regulation covering existing wells, a set of recommendations covering pipelines, and two permits for new wells and compressor stations. Wolf said the permits will require better equipment and record-keeping and quarterly inspections. Compressor stations will have to use newer diesel engines that reduce certain air pollution emissions.

DEP officials planned to discuss details of the rules on Wednesday. Department Secretary John Quigley, who said he has been working on methane since Wolf took office a year ago, predicted the Environmental Quality Board would get the new permits for review next month so they would take effect by the second half of the year.

The regulatory process for rules covering existing wells will likely take at least 18 months, Quigley said. Environmental regulations covering drilling and fracking that the board received for review this month have taken more than four years to implement and could be subject to legal and legislative challenges.

“We would not want this to suffer the same fate,” said Aaron Jacobs-Smith, an attorney for the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council.

The Obama administration in August released federal rules aimed at cutting methane emissions from oil and gas operations by up to 45 percent nationwide by requiring more controls at new sites.

The quarterly inspections Wolf called for in state permits exceed the semiannual inspections to be required by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The DEP said it would seek to “build upon those (EPA) standards, where appropriate,” but did not specify what it would add to permits that exceed federal rules.

Environmental advocates have said rules must also target existing wells that studies have shown to have more potential to leak than new wells and equipment.

“This announcement is welcome news for Pennsylvanians forced to coexist with an industry playing by its own rules, no matter how damaging to people and the planet,” said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of PennFuture. “Gov. Wolf's bold leadership takes an important and much-needed step toward protecting the health of Pennsylvania citizens from drillers' harmful methane pollution.”

David Conti is the Tribune-Review's assistant business editor. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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