On November 21st, Governor Wolf announced that his administration would pursue an emergency rulemaking to finalize long-overdue VOC and methane rules for the conventional oil and gas industry. This step became necessary when the Chair of the House Environmental Resources & Energy Committee, without public notice or a hearing, utilized a procedural maneuver to block the rule from becoming final before the end of the year – setting off a consequential chain reaction that would adversely impact Pennsylvania’s environment and economy.
This VOC and methane rulemaking, which has been in development since Governor Wolf first announced his methane strategy in 2016, is mandated by federal law – specifically, 2016 Control Technique Guidelines (CTGs) issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that require states to adopt and incorporate into their own programs. These guidelines represent the minimum control standards that should be adopted by the states, but EPA has made it clear that states can – and some did– adopt more stringent standards. When the 2016 guidelines are measured against current technology and accepted industry controls, they embody the lowest common denominator of protection and are accepted practice among industry leaders.
Notably, the EPA standards apply equally to both conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations. Federal law makes no such distinction, which is important because conventional wells are responsible for about half of methane emissions in the state of Pennsylvania.
The state’s proposed rule, which originally would apply uniformly to conventional and unconventional wells, underwent a robust public comment period. In fact, upwards of 38,000 Pennsylvanians voiced support for the rule, including a bipartisan group of local officials, faith leaders, and dozens of organizations such as public health groups, veteran organizations, business interests, environmental organizations, and more. On October 12th, the Environmental Quality Board approved modest adjustments to the outmoded federal standards, and that approval was validated by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission in November.
Despite the federal mandate and broad public support, the Chair of the Committee opted to delay the rule.
This is significant not only because it means ozone-forming pollutants and climate-warming emissions will continue to go unchecked, but also because EPA itself is required to enforce deadlines for states to finalize their rules. The final deadline for Pennsylvania is December 16th. If Pennsylvania were to miss this deadline, the state would be subjected to mandatory sanctions that would impact both the regulated community as well as residents of the Commonwealth – including as much as $750 millions of federal infrastructure funding.
The consequences of the Committee’s action were known by the Chair, as well as the members who supported it. Instead of recognizing required and long overdue protections, they elected to act on behalf of the conventional oil and gas industry, which has unceasingly fought against even basic safeguards and compliance measures. The same industry that is now benefiting from the billions of public dollars being utilized to plug the wells they’ve abandoned. The same actors who are pushing a false narrative about burdensome regulations when in fact Pennsylvania has some of the weakest protection standards in the country. Even in Texas, the oil and gas industry – regardless of whether these are conventional or unconventional operations, producing or low-producing operations – adhere to the basic standards in the 2016 CTGs.
PEC and EDF support commonsense approaches to regulations; the VOC and methane rule was the lowest of low-hanging fruit in that regard. The rule was even supported by members of the industry. But the House Committee choose to ignore these facts – electing sanctions over safeguards.
Governor Wolf recognized that without action, the public once again would bear the consequences of obstruction. If approved by EQB, the emergency rulemaking will allow the rule to be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. This will ensure Pennsylvania meets the EPA deadline. By law, the legislature will still have the option to act on the rule if they so choose, so the Governor’s action does not override their authority.
It’s past time for these basic standards to be in place, and to hold the conventional industry responsible. Next year EPA will finalize and strengthen requirements that will further reduce oil and gas methane pollution. Not only is Pennsylvania past due, it must look ahead to supporting true industry leadership and accountability while developing their next State Implementation Plan (SIP) to attain and maintain these air quality standards.
The Environmental Defense Fund and Pennsylvania Environmental Council support the Governor’s action.