Over the past year, the chatter on methane pollution from oil and gas operations has gotten much louder—and that's a good thing. This has been helped along by the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rules in August 2015 to cut methane pollution from new and modified sources in the oil and gas industry. Going a step further, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a four-point plan in January 2016 to curb methane pollution from new and existing sources of oil and gas operations in Pennsylvania. Last month, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to work on rules for existing sources of oil and gas methane pollution that would address emissions across the U.S. and Canada.
It's the latter proposals to cut existing sources of oil and gas methane pollution that have caused much consternation among oil and gas producers. These companies, and their lobbyists, are quick to offer sound bites suggesting that they've got this, they are addressing existing sources of pollution voluntarily as it's in their best interest, and that there's no need for what they view as unnecessary and duplicative standards. The short answers, from where we sit, are no, no and no.
Existing sources of oil and gas operations, or the hundreds of thousands of wells, tanks, and compressor stations across the U.S., routinely vent, flare and leak methane. Methane, or CH4, is the primary constituent of natural gas and is a potent greenhouse gas, 86 times more so than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after its release into the atmosphere. This airborne pollution is a public health problem, a waste of our natural resources, and a climate disaster in the making.
When oil and gas producers refer to methane pollution and say they've got this, they're wrong. Methane pollution from existing sources—the bulk of the problem—continue to increase as both Pennsylvania and EPA inventories indicate. Where we have seen some marked declines is in the category of green well completions, or the process of completing a well and readying it for production. It's worth noting that green completions are the one regulated category of methane emissions. Two words: Rules work.
As to voluntary compliance, that's pretty much another fallacy. The EPA's Natural Gas STAR program, which promotes voluntary efforts to rein in oil and gas pollution, struggles with woefully low buy-in from the industry. While Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary John Quigley has singled out Southwestern, Shell, Chevron and CONSOL as large producers that work to cut methane pollution, he also acknowledges that the bulk of small-mid size producers are nowhere near curbing emissions on a voluntary basis. Further, Quigley has stated that methane emission figures in the state are "unrealistically low" because leaks are so common and rarely measured.
Lastly, the suggestion that proposed methane rules for existing sources in Pennsylvania would be unnecessary and duplicative is absurd. Unnecessary? See the two previous paragraphs. Duplicative? Impossible, as Pennsylvania currently has no comprehensive regulatory framework for methane pollution from oil and gas operations. Colorado does, Pennsylvania is working on it, and California recently proposed its own suite of methane rules. We applaud Sec. Quigley's continued call for "best-in-the-nation" standards on methane pollution in PA.
Existing sources of methane pollution are a clear and present danger and must be addressed. The Wolf administration is on its way to doing just that, and 70 percent of Pennsylvanians in a recent poll support the effort. The proposed rules are laudable, and we thank the governor for his bold leadership.
In the weeks and months ahead, PennFuture will provide ample opportunity for citizens of the commonwealth to show their support for rules that cover existing sources of methane pollution. It's time to rein in this harmful pollution and protect our communities. We stand ready to help.
Elaine Labalme is strategic campaigns director for PennFuture and is based in Pittsburgh.