On January 20, 2016, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2015 was not only the warmest year in the 136 years of record keeping, but it set the record by the widest margin of any previous year. With global temperatures last year 2.36 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average, the need to take climate action is clear. As Pennsylvania is the third-largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter in the nation (behind the much larger states of Texas and California), we have a key role to play.
It is particularly appropriate that, on the day before that announcement was made, Gov. Tom Wolf joined Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) secretary John Quigley and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) secretary Cindy Dunn for a town hall meeting on energy, climate, and the environment where they announced a much-needed effort to cut methane emissions from the state’s natural gas industry by as much as 40 percent.
GHG methane is 84-86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Overall, it’s the second most prevalent GHG humans emit, but in the natural gas industry - where methane is the chief component of the gas itself - it is the most significant pollutant.
As Sec. Quigley reported, even if we assume that the industry-reported data for methane leakage is accurate (and there is reason for doubt), the market value of the lost gas would amount to $8 million per year. Since the secretary said actual leakage rates could be between 2 and 12 percent, that number may be much higher. Additionally, we need to consider the public health costs of the excess air pollution and, of course, the cost of climate impacts. As Carnegie Mellon professor, Albert Presto put it, “if emissions are above 6 percent of production, we’re sort of in this climate disaster territory.”
What happens next?
The first step is simple. DEP will implement the upcoming amendments to the federal emissions standards put forth by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for new and modified sources known as Subpart OOOO (often pronounced “quad-O”) and the newly proposed Subpart OOOOa (probably pronounced “quad-O-a”, but “OOOOahhh” would work, too.) This is a good start but will, by definition, be limited to new and modified sources, leaving thousands of existing wells untouched.
DEP will also be addressing existing sources of methane emissions, which are not presently addressed in the EPA's proposed methane rules announced in August 2015. What will follow from DEP is implementation of the upcoming Control Techniques Guidelines (CTGs) for the industry, which should be finalized this summer. These will apply to existing sources of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from a number of emission sources. Once the federal CTGs are finalized, DEP will move forward with a regulatory process to implement them. This is a 18 to 24 month process that will include extensive review and opportunity for public comment. This will be another step forward, but gaps in coverage will likely remain.
Another avenue to address this problem is through DEP’s permitting process. Currently, mid-stream operators like compression facilities benefit from what is know as General Permit 5 (GP-5) and wells and wellheads benefit from a permit exemption (Exemption 38). These allow operators to avoid the time and expense of applying for individual permits if they meet specific criteria. By strengthening GP-5 and converting Exemption 38 to a stronger general permit, the DEP could effectively require better emission controls much sooner than the 18 to 24 months it would take to enact a regulation.
How can the public get involved?
While permit revisions can be used quickly and to good effect, there are drawbacks. One obvious point is that since a general permit can be changed more quickly and easily than a regulation, positive changes can be easier to undo. The other main issue is that the public comment period on a general permit may occur years before the new permit is used. That often means that by the time a citizen knows they will be impacted by permit provisions, their ability to comment on that permit is long over. There is no perfect solution to this problem, but one essential element is public involvement.
That means uniting in support of the DEP in their efforts to strengthen protections. It also means being a good citizen and letting folks in Harrisburg know when their actions fall short of our expectations.
Unlike many other states, the Constitution of Pennsylvania guarantees citizens the right to clean air, pure water, and a healthy environment. The citizens of Pennsylvania deserve the best and most comprehensive protections from methane leakage, and it is important that the DEP and the governor hear that from the citizens themselves.
Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.