FILE - Natural gas well PA

This July 27, 2011 file photo shows a farmhouse in the background framed by pipes connecting pumps where the hydraulic fracturing process in the Marcellus Shale layer to release natural gas was underway at a Range Resources site in Claysville, Pa.

(The Center Square) – Environmental groups said this week Gov. Tom Wolf must close a perceived loophole in the state’s pending methane emissions rule or he will risk his climate legacy.

The Environmental Defense Fund partnered with the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, Moms Clean Air Force, Evangelical Environmental Network and Vet Voice Foundation to sponsor television and social media ads in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia markets warning of the adverse health effects of methane emissions.

The International Energy Agency describes methane as the second largest contributor to climate change behind carbon. Environmental advocates worry lax regulations on the state's natural gas industry have allowed methane contamination of groundwater and air to go unchecked.

A June report from the Attorney General’s Office echoed similar sentiments and alleged that profits for the state took priority over ensuring that hydraulic fracturing operations didn’t threaten the health and environment of surrounding communities.

“During his two election campaigns, Governor Wolf pledged bold action on methane pollution from the oil and gas sector, and Pennsylvanians applauded him for that,” said Dan Grossman, senior director of regulatory and legislative affairs for EDF Action. “Now we are calling on the Governor to make good on his promises and close the loopholes in his proposal that would leave more than half of the state’s methane emissions unchecked.”

In 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection finalized a rule that limits methane leaks from new sources. Now, the agency has turned its attention to containing emissions from sites constructed before 2013 – which includes more than 71,000 conventional wells and 8,400 unconventional wells across the state, according to its own estimates. 

DEP analysis shows that in 2017, just 303 – or less than 1% – of the existing 71,229 conventional wells in production exceed the 15 barrel of oil equivalent per day production threshold. The rest fall into the category of low-producing wells that EDF says generate half of the state's methane emissions.

“Strong methane rules are critical to Governor Wolf’s climate legacy and his administration must act to close the loopholes in the draft rule now,” Grossman said.

In documents, DEP says this exemption shields small businesses from the economic impact of additional regulations. Compliance, according to the agency, could cost operators upward of $7,000.

It's a price tag that some owners of lower producing wells statewide may find burdensome, the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association has said.

“PIOGA supports regulation that actually improves our air quality while remaining mindful of the competitive realities facing small oil and natural gas producers that are the economic backbone of many of the Commonwealth’s rural communities,” said Dan Weaver, PIOGA's executive director, in August. “The strides made to improve Pennsylvania’s air quality through the increased use of natural gas for electricity production are nothing short of amazing.”

On Thursday, Biden set a nationwide goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030. Wolf said the new target aligns with his own plan to cut emissions in the state 26% over the next four years and 80% through 2050.

“I share the president’s grave concern for the health of our planet and protecting our precious natural resources, and that’s why my administration has also prioritized efforts to combat climate change,” he said.

Natural gas supporters argue that existing renewable energy technology can't support such a fast transition away from fossil fuels and urge the president to remember the industry's supporting role.

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.