First, the bad news: oil and gas facilities are emitting huge volumes of methane – the primary component of natural gas – into the atmosphere. The climate impact of those emissions is many times greater than that of carbon dioxide, and Pennsylvania is among the biggest contributors.
Worse, there are huge gaps in our knowledge of exactly how much methane is being released. The data we do have are sobering enough but, as we are hearing with increasing frequency from scientists working to fill in the gaps, many previous estimates have undershot actual emissions – sometimes dramatically.
A leak discovered recently in Ohio emitted more methane than the entire oil and gas industries of many nations do in a year.
A team from Penn State recently found that gas facilities in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma – a region responsible for nearly 40 percent of man-made methane emissions in the U.S. – are releasing twice as much methane as previously estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The study builds on PSU research from 2019 that found methane emissions from unconventional gas wells in the Marcellus shale region were as many as eight times higher than EPA estimates.
On top of that, there are fugitive releases – like the one discovered in Ohio that emitted more methane than the entire oil and gas industries of many nations do in a year.
That’s… really bad. Ready for some good news?
For starters, we know that the majority of emissions from existing facilities come from an identifiable set of equipment and sources. Finding and fixing the largest leaks will go a long way toward cutting overall emissions, at a relatively low cost.
Meanwhile, the toolkit of instruments and methods available for leak detection and emission control is expanding every day, and is extremely cost effective (more on that in a moment). Thanks in part to research and development happening right now in Pennsylvania, the tech is cheaper and more powerful than ever – and all that innovation is driving a fast-growing companion industry in methane mitigation.
Isaac Brown of the industry group Center for Methane Emissions Solutions notes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that mitigation companies are popping up all over the commonwealth, employing Pennsylvanians in stable, family-sustaining jobs:
The industry boasts nearly 50 sites across Pennsylvania including company headquarters, manufacturing and assembly plants, equipment maintenance sites, sales locations, and leak detection and repair services. Roughly 60% of these companies are small businesses, with new start-up companies being created all the time. These jobs employ everyone from high school graduates to Ph.D.s.
Oil and gas companies know that every leak means lost profit, and increasingly they understand that the solutions are cost-effective and readily available. In fact, there’s a substantial body of economic analysis showing how existing technologies could actually cut methane emissions in half at zero net cost to operators.
Companies and investors are beginning to view emission reductions through the lens of corporate responsibility.
Offering alternative compliance options for gas producers to show they are monitoring and controlling their emissions will only encourage the trend. It will also create opportunity for those fledgling methane mitigation firms, which often find themselves cut off from markets in states whose regulations haven’t kept pace with technology.
Looking beyond their own bottom line, companies and investors are also beginning to view emission reductions through the lens of their responsibility as corporate citizens. When EPA proposed an end to federal methane regulations and pollution controls last year, gas producers and utilities were among those who pushed back.
“With appropriate measures to reduce methane leakage,” Texas-based Pioneer Natural Resources wrote in its public comment on the proposed rule, “natural gas provides an affordable, reliable, plentiful alternative to more carbon-intensive fuels… However, voluntary actions and initiatives by only some companies in the oil and gas sector and a patchwork of inconsistent state regulations are insufficient to meet the challenge of significantly reducing methane emissions.”
That sentiment was echoed by other gas producers, like Colorado’s Jonah Energy, and utilities including Exelon, PSEG, and PG&E. Some of Pennsylvania’s biggest operators – notably Shell and ExxonMobil – have also voiced support for methane regulations.
Such actions reflect a growing awareness that, when it comes to energy and climate, public attitudes have shifted. Recent polling shows that more than three out of four Pennsylvanians consider climate change a serious public health risk, and almost as many say they want the Commonwealth to prioritize climate action. The trend lines suggest those numbers will only continue to grow, and Pennsylvanians will only become more vocal in demanding action from their leaders.
The oil and gas industry is ready for change. The public is ready for change. Ready for the best and most recent news? Our state government is ready to lead.
Emission controls for new and modified gas facilities went into effect last year under a new DEP policy, and the Wolf administration has begun the rulemaking process for similar controls on existing sources. The proposed rule isn’t perfect – as drafted, it exempts low-producing wells that are actually responsible for more than half the state’s emissions, and lets other facilities off the hook simply because they have not yet experienced a major leak – but it represents perhaps the biggest step forward to date. With changes to these provisions and others PEC has recommended, Pennsylvania can become a national leader on methane this year.
Very soon, Pennsylvanians will get their chance to weigh in on the proposal – and it is critical that they do so. With strong public support during the 60-day comment period that begins later this month, DEP can finalize the rulemaking, and natural gas can begin to fulfill its potential as a cleaner source of energy for our transition to an eventual zero-carbon economy. We urge all Pennsylvanians to educate themselves and take an active role in the process.