Without strong action on climate change, Pennsylvania will see worsened air quality, increased damage from flooding, agricultural losses, and increased rates of vector-borne illnesses like Lyme disease. Climate change, driven by greenhouse gases, is already causing hotter temperatures, more severe weather events, and increased smog levels, which can cause and aggravate serious cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
Methane, an extremely potent heat-trapping greenhouse gas, is the primary component of natural gas and directly fuels the climate crisis. Methane leaks across every stage of the oil and gas supply chain. As the second-largest gas-producing state in the country, Pennsylvania has a major methane problem, and it’s only getting worse. We need Gov. Tom Wolf to lead and take bold action on methane now.
Back in 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued recommendations for how to reasonably control air pollution from the oil and gas sector. These recommendations did not constitute binding legal requirements, but they did trigger an obligation for states in areas with high levels of smog like Pennsylvania — called ozone nonattainment areas — to revise their air-quality plans within two years to reflect the EPA’s guidelines. That deadline came and went way back in October 2018.
The Wolf administration and the Department of Environmental Protection have since offered a proposed rule to address the issue and plan to submit it to the EPA for approval once it is made final. That rule was adopted by the Environmental Quality Board in December 2019, and it would require companies to install emission control devices on equipment and to inspect sites for leaks every three months as a baseline.
The Wolf administration’s proposed rule exempts wells below a certain threshold of energy production (15 barrels of oil equivalent per day) from commonsense inspection requirements to find and fix leaks. In practice, that means tens of thousands of wells across Pennsylvania will continue to go uninspected. These wells collectively contribute more than half the methane pollution from oil and gas infrastructure in Pennsylvania. The proposed rule ignores a fundamental truth about well sites: Methane pollution levels do not correlate with oil and gas production levels. Leaks at well sites occur randomly, and past performance does not indicate future results.
During the comment period around the proposed rule, more than 36,000 people submitted written comments and 121 speakers delivered testimony during three virtual public hearings. There was one overwhelmingly consistent message delivered by environmental and community activists, small business owners, faith leaders, farmers, mothers, students, scientists, and academics: Close the loophole for low-producing wells.
Allowing more than half the state’s methane emissions to continue unchecked because of an exemption in this rule would be a tragic missed opportunity to tackle climate change.
Given Pennsylvania’s outsized contribution to methane pollution nationwide — and just how much methane leaks from low-producing wells in the commonwealth — this loophole has to be fixed. Another leading oil and gas state, Colorado, has already strengthened its own air-quality plan twice since the EPA’s 2016 recommendations, putting forward comprehensive standards to control climate and air pollution. The DEP has clear and considerable authority under Pennsylvania law to go above and beyond EPA guidelines, which are now a half-decade old. The Biden EPA is also in the process of drafting federal rules to cut methane and air pollution for new and existing sources. A weak Pennsylvania rule could undercut the Biden EPA and would fail to demonstrate the bold leadership on tackling the climate crisis that the majority of Pennsylvania residents are demanding from their elected leaders.
At a recent Environmental Quality Board meeting, a senior DEP staffer updated the board and shared the department’s plans to bring the final-form methane rule to the board “sometime in the fall.” It’s been a year since the public comment period closed, and we expect an updated draft of the rule to come out soon. To meaningfully tackle methane pollution and deliver on his commitment to the people of Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf needs to ensure the low-producing well loophole in this rule is closed. All wells need inspections at some point for leaks, no matter their production levels. Our climate — and the people of Pennsylvania — demand it.
Joseph Minott is executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council.