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Lawmakers have questions on Wolf's methane crackdown

| Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, 10:30 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Northeast Natural Energy rig hands, also known as 'roughnecks,' make a connection by adding a section of 32' drill pipes to the drill string at the Morgantown Industrial Park (MIP) site Thursday, July 9, 2015. The site is being used as a field study of natural gas drilling.

Gov. Tom Wolf's push to more tightly regulate methane emissions from Pennsylvania shale gas operations likely will face legislative scrutiny as proposals take shape during the next few months.

House Republicans have questions about why the Democratic governor is seeking to enact rules that are more stringent than pending federal regulations, their spokesman, Stephen Miskin, said Wednesday. Wolf is proposing rules for existing wells not covered by Environmental Protection Agency regulations and additional requirements for new wells that exceed the EPA standards.

“We definitely want to take a look at it,” Miskin said about rules the Department of Environmental Protection will propose to reduce emissions from existing gas wells and equipment. “They cannot just write law on their own.”

While answering questions about Wolf's plan to revamp permits for new pollution sources and write regulations for the existing ones, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley said the new sets of requirements would not require legislative action.

The Environmental Quality Board that must approve new rules includes the majority and minority chairs of the House and Senate committees with DEP oversight, though. And the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee likely will take a look at the changes, said its director, Adam Pankake.

“I could envision a hearing happening. But we just found out about this,” he said, noting the committees can review new regulations.

Wolf announced the plan Tuesday, arguing that leaking methane, a greenhouse gas, contributes to climate change and wastes a valuable resource. The shale gas industry, which during the past decade made Pennsylvania the nation's No. 2 natural gas producer, said it has cut emissions, citing data it reports to regulators.

Quigley said those data are unreliable and that new rules are required to make sure all companies follow the best leak detection and repair techniques utilized by the most progressive companies.

“Without requirements, industry won't take comprehensive action to address the methane problem,” he said.

Quigley provided additional information about the four-prong attack on leaks, which includes revamped permits for new wells and for compressors, new rules for existing wells and a set of recommendations covering pipelines.

The permits will require more frequent inspections and record-keeping than the federal rules because the No. 2 gas producer should be a leader, Quigley said.

Environmental advocates had called on Wolf to impose rules on existing wells not covered by the EPA. Studies have shown that older wells and equipment leak much more than what companies use today to pull gas from shale.

The new rules will apply only to shale wells, and not the more shallow, conventional wells used to extract natural gas and oil for decades.

Exact details of new requirements will become clearer as the DEP starts writing new permits and rules during the next few months.

“We're rolling out concepts — not permit language ... not regulatory language — next month,” Quigley said.

The process will include hearings and public comment, though it's too early to say when they will take place. Quigley hoped to have new permits in place this year and new regulations written in 12 to 18 months.

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

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