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State Board Approves Pared-Down Methane Rule for Unconventional Gas Wells

A new regulation to reduce harmful emissions from oil and gas sites will apply only to unconventional wells and related sites, after trade groups representing conventional oil and gas operators filed a lawsuit. The state Environmental Quality Board recently approved the pared down rule to try to avoid sanctions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that took effect June 16 and will require the state to offset double the emissions for major new air pollution sources. A December sanction would withhold millions of dollars in federal highway funding. The rule is necessary to meet EPA standards set in 2008 and 2016. Pennsylvania treats conventional and unconventional wells differently, while the EPA does not account for any differences. The initial rule proposed in December would have covered both types of wells. The rule will limit emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are “precursors to the formation of ground-level ozone, a public health, welfare and environmental hazard,” the rule analysis states. Methane emissions are also reduced as a co-benefit. “Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential more than 28 times that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year time period, according to the EPA,” the executive summary states. However, studies have found that conventional wells emit more methane than unconventional wells. As a result, the amount of VOCs and methane emissions prevented will be about 80 percent less by covering only unconventional wells. The adopted rule estimates a reduction of 2,864 tons of VOCs and more than 45,000 tons of methane per year. The state Department of Environmental Protection is working to complete a second rule for emissions from conventional wells. Several trade groups, including the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, had filed a lawsuit against DEP over the combined rule and a House committee objected to it, triggering a lengthy review process. It must submit a complete rule change by Dec. 16 to avoid the highway funding sanctions. The rule affecting unconventional wells must now be considered by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, with the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee then poised to review, and likely, oppose the regulation after IRRC approval. A letter to the IRRC cites procedural and substantive concerns. “There are a number of different areas where the regulation goes beyond the standards the federal government has required and what other oil and gas producing states have and are adopting,” it states. Whether further legal action will result remains to be determined.

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