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Analysis: Pa. Gas Methane Emissions Much Worse Than Reported

Natural gas operators in Pennsylvania are emitting more than 15 times the amount of methane than they reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection, a recently updated review by the Environmental Defense Fund found.

The EDF review determined that gas drillers emit about 1.1 million tons of methane into the atmosphere annually. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that accounts for about 25 percent of near-term climate change, the organization said. High concentrations in the air can also cause health impacts.

The review updates a July 2018 study published in the journal Science that found 2015 fugitive methane emissions from wells across the country were 60 percent higher than the EPA estimate. The review, which is part of the Pennsylvania Methane Data Project, looked at 2017 production data and found emissions that year were double the 2015 estimate.

While gas operators reported 70,150 tons of methane emissions from about 8,000 unconventional wells to the DEP, the EDF estimated the amount at 543,000 tons for 2017. Emissions from about 73,000 vertical or “conventional” wells, which are mostly older, added 599,200 more tons. DEP does not require reporting of emissions at conventional wells.

The reasons for the increase from the earlier analysis include higher production levels in 2017; use of additional state-specific data; and use of the Science study best available scientific methods, an EDF press release states.

“The fact that natural gas operators are emitting well over a million tons of methane pollution each year into the air Pennsylvanians breathe is unacceptable,” said Dan Grossman, EDF senior director of state advocacy in a press release. “The staggering scale of the methane problem in Pennsylvania makes Gov. (Tom) Wolf’s proposal to reduce emissions from existing oil and gas operations all the more critical.”

The review also found that more than 63,000 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are being emitted. VOCs contribute to the formation of ozone, which can cause smog. Smog and ozone pollution cause heart disease and worsen respiratory diseases, such as asthma and emphysema. Washington County led the state in VOC emissions at 15,300 tons.

“The EDF data highlights the need to reduce methane, and the Wolf Administration/DEP recognizes the need to act quickly to reduce methane pollution from wells and other natural gas infrastructure,” said DEP spokeswoman Lauren Fraley in an email. “As part of Governor Wolf’s initiatives to reduce climate change, DEP has drafted regulation that has been adopted by the Environmental Quality Board, and will be accepting public comment later this month on the regulation.”

DEP recently announced that the EQB will receive public comments on its proposed regulation to control methane from existing oil and gas operations by setting VOC standards. The agency estimates that the regulation will reduce methane emissions from gas operations by more than 75,000 tons a year. It has set three virtual public hearings on the proposed regulation on June 23, 24, and 25.

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