In a move hailed by environmental groups, Gov. Wolf announced Thursday that methane from new, unconventional natural gas operations will be capped and emission leaks will have to be fixed — a big step for a state that is the second biggest producer of fuel in the nation. These operations include gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," as well as horizontal drilling.
"These permits represent the first step of my methane reduction strategy and my administration's continuing commitment to cleaner, healthier air across the commonwealth," Wolf said in a statement. "Cleaner air means healthier communities – for our citizens, and especially for our children."
Marcellus Shale Coalition president Dave Spigelmyer said that the industry is "focused on ensuring methane and related emissions are managed safely and effectively," but that the industry was "concerned about imposing additional requirements through operating permits." The coalition represents the natural gas exploration and drilling industry.
Meanwhile, environmental groups, which had been pushing the permits for years, were thrilled.
"I think the permits really do signal that Gov. Wolf is going to stand up in protecting Pennsylvania communities from the oil and gas industry," said Andrew Williams, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Methane, a greenhouse gas, is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas, with carbon dioxide being the first.
The Wolf administration said the permits were the result of input from both industry and environmental groups. The administration received more than 9,000 responses to the permits during the public commenting period.
The new permits go into effect Aug. 8 for construction of new natural gas wells, compression stations, and processing and transmission station sites along pipelines.
Currently, Pennsylvania does not require detection or cap the amount of methane in its permitting to operate a natural gas facility. The permits will require quarterly inspections for natural gas or methane leaks. Operators will have 15 days to repair leaks or face enforcement penalties, including potential fines. Operators also have to comply with requirements to use up-to-date equipment.
The permits, issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection, don't exclude all methane emissions, but set a cap.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition believes the new permits "exceed DEP's statutory authority" and says it is already taking steps to improve air quality.
Environmental groups were nonetheless happy that there are at least some concrete measures in place and that the new emission thresholds are much lower than in other states or at the federal level.
David Jenkins, with the Virginia-based Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, praised the move, saying the state had "taken a vital step to protect Pennsylvania's air quality."
"There is nothing conservative about waste and pollution, or the corner-cutting that causes them. Pennsylvania's commitment to these common sense standards is a welcome contrast to the swamp politics in Washington that is preventing federal agencies like EPA from doing their job," Jenkins added in a statement.
The new permits also set thresholds on other pollutants including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), and nitrogen oxides (NOx).