First, the bad news. There is broad agreement that methane emissions from natural gas development in Pennsylvania and other states are a serious problem. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas and, absent adequate controls, methane leaks across the natural gas supply chain could undo many of the potential environmental benefits natural gas can have over other fossil fuels like coal. But there appears to be a disconnect about what is being done today to assess and regulate these emissions in the Keystone State.
Natural gas has economic benefits that include lower heating costs and cheaper electricity. When burned, it sends fewer sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions into the atmosphere than coal. But methane — a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide for 20 years after its release into the atmosphere — can quickly undo those benefits.
Methane is often leaked and vented as a result of the gas-development process, and leakage is seen from well pad to distribution and delivery, all the way to the burner on your stove. Left unchecked, methane is a ticking time bomb when it comes to near-term climate change.
Methane also can contribute to localized impacts like ozone pollution (smog), which is more likely to form on hotter days. This is of particular concern in Pennsylvania metropolitan areas such as Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia, all of which received failing grades in the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report for 2014. A recent study in Pennsylvania found that methane emissions in some places are potentially 100 to 1,000 times higher than Environmental Protection Agency estimates.
Now, the good news. Methane emissions can be significantly and cost-effectively controlled with proper equipment and robust monitoring and repair.
The question then becomes … what is Pennsylvania doing about it?
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Chris Abruzzo was recently quoted as saying that “Pennsylvania, under the direction of Gov. Tom Corbett, has been a national leader in creating and implementing the toughest, most stringent and enforceable emissions requirements for this industry.”
It’s true that Pennsylvania made progress last year in updating emission-control requirements for gas operations. The DEP now requires quarterly inspections for leaks — so-called “fugitive” emissions — at compressor stations. At well sites, if operators agree to conduct annual inspections for leaks along with a handful of other requirements, they can avoid going through a permitting process.
So, while Pennsylvania has made strides, how do we stack up against other states?
Unfortunately, we fall well short of any claim to national leadership.
In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper mustered the political will in a relatively short time to put in place the nation’s most comprehensive regulatory framework to control air emissions from oil and gas operations, including the first direct state regulation of methane emitted from a wide range of development activities. It was a bold move, and one that was broadly supported by communities, environmental groups and even the state’s leading oil and gas companies.
Wide-open Wyoming, a state where some rural areas are struggling with oil- and gas-related air pollution on par with that of Los Angeles, has also implemented requirements to control emissions from a range of air pollution sources at well sites — including quarterly leak inspections.
Next door, Ohio now also requires natural gas drillers to conduct quarterly inspections to find and fix leaks wherever they might occur.
Keep in mind, the governors and other elected leaders in these three leading states welcome gas development. They want the economic upside it can bring. But they also know that local communities, public health and the environment can’t take a back seat.
Fortunately, cost-effective technologies already exist that can cut onshore methane emissions by 40 percent in five years at an annual cost of less than a penny per thousand feet of cubic gas.
We believe Pennsylvania can and should be a national leader on these issues. Other states have set the bar, and energy companies are meeting their tough new requirements. There’s no reason why it can’t happen here.
Our state accounts for a staggering amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and unchecked methane emissions will only further that unworthy role. To be a true leader, we must meet this challenge to protect our health, our communities and our environment.
Cindy Dunn is president and CEO of PennFuture. Davitt Woodwell is executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. Matt Watson is national director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s state programs for natural gas.