State DEP unveils methane controls for shale gas sites

HARRISBURG (AP) — Pennsylvania environmental officials unveiled plans for new permits aimed at limiting methane and other air pollution from shale gas well sites and compressor stations on Dec. 8, adding specifics to a methane reduction strategy Gov. Tom Wolf announced as a priority at the start of the year.

The new draft general permits mark the state’s first attempt to regulate methane emissions from natural gas well site operations directly rather than through a permit exemption process or by curbing emissions of the potent greenhouse gas as a side benefit of other pollution controls.

Minimizing methane emissions across the natural gas production system is seen as a way to ensure that the climate benefits of burning gas for electricity instead of coal are realized.

The Department of Environmental Protection permits will incorporate the most recent federal standards for reducing oil and gas well site emissions, but they will also build on those, agency officials told an air quality advisory board Dec. 8.

For example, the state plans to require leak detection and repair surveys to be performed quarterly at well sites rather than the federal standard of semi-annually, at least until an operator can show that 2 percent or less of its well site components are leaking.

The state’s new permits also will apply to remote pipeline cleaning, or “pigging,” operations and liquids unloading to remove fluids from wells, both of which can be significant short-term sources of emissions but are not covered by the federal rules, Krishnan Ramamurthy, acting director of DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality, said.

The new compressor station permits will for the first time include a condition requiring operators to minimize noise to meet any federal or local standards that apply.

Since 2013, DEP has used a roundabout method of regulating well site air pollution by allowing operators to be exempt from permitting requirements if they meet a suite of standards.

Industry representatives said Thursday that the current strategy is working, but Ramamurthy said the method has been “a nightmare” for inspectors trying to track whether companies are in compliance.

The exemption method also has been burdensome because the exemption doesn’t carry a fee, so the agency hasn’t received revenue to hire staff to cover the additional workload the program demands, he said.

Critics of DEP’s new strategy argued the general permits will require information in advance that companies won’t know until their wells have been drilled and fracked. They also predicted the complicated new applications will tax an already overburdened DEP staff, which will lead to lengthy permit delays.

People who spoke in favor of DEP’s new strategy included environmentalists, residents, a physician and an environmental engineer. Several urged DEP to explore lowering the threshold for when methane emissions from natural gas equipment will trigger stricter controls.

The department has not decided when it will formally publish the draft permits for public comment, but Ramamurthy said it will be done “shortly.” Once the public comment period opens, it will last for 45 days, he said.

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