Erie Times-News: Stronger oil, gas rules could boost jobs, protect planet

Pennsylvanians face serious challenges right now, with questions about the pandemic, economy and environment dominating headlines. Fortunately, some of these challenges offer a chance to chart a path to a healthier and more prosperous future. One of the biggest opportunities lies in cleaning up our state’s oil and gas industry, which can create jobs and cut air pollution that threatens our communities and climate.

Northwestern Pennsylvania, home to the nation’s first oil well, is no stranger to both the benefits that development can bring as well as the long-lasting impacts if development isn’t done right. Case in point, this region is home to a major share of Pennsylvania’s more than 300,000 orphaned oil and gas wells, which can leak methane and other pollutants into our air, water and soil. That is on top of the many active wells that could operate more safely and efficiently.

While there are a lot of important discussions happening now about how to put laid-off oil and gas workers to work fixing this problem, there’s another important job opportunity waiting for Pennsylvania’s energy industry: cutting emissions from the more than 70,000 existing oil and gas wells across the state.

Oil and gas operators across Pennsylvania waste more than 1 million tons of methane every year, according to a recent analysis from the Environmental Defense Fund. That’s 16 times what gets reported to state regulators. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that threatens our climate and health and drives a quarter of the global warming we are experiencing today.

In Pennsylvania, oil and gas methane emissions have more than twice the climate impact as all of the cars in the state combined. A warming climate spells trouble for local communities, as higher temperatures, increasingly strange and severe weather events, and more intense flooding become the norm. Climate change can also lead to lower crop yields for Pennsylvania farmers, along with more vector-borne diseases that threaten public health – and with Pennsylvania already leading the nation in cases of Lyme disease, Erie County and the areas around Lake Erie can ill afford to see another spike.

Methane is also the main component of natural gas. In fact, Pennsylvania companies are losing out on the equivalent of 57 billion cubic feet of natural gas that should be sold to consumers, generating tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue.

Thankfully, the technology exists today to capture wasteful pollution while creating jobs and expanding our economy. Leak repairs are simple and almost always cost-effective, while the International Energy Agency reports that roughly 30% of methane emissions can be fixed at no net cost – even at today’s prices.

Methane mitigation companies are a burgeoning industry in Pennsylvania, bringing family-sustaining jobs to the state for both entry-level and highly skilled employees. A majority of these companies are small businesses with diverse workforces and opportunities for expansion. The industry already boasts dozens of locations across the state, such as company headquarters, manufacturing facilities, sales centers and leak detection and repair services.

As the oil and gas industry is compelled to seek ways to operate more responsibly, efficiently and cost-effectively, companies engaged in leak detection and repair continue to both expand their workforce and develop newer and better technologies in the service of capturing previously wasted product.

For instance, some companies are finding commercial success with continuous or high

frequency monitoring technologies that can provide real-time information on when a leak

occurs. In-state academic institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have also played a role to help incubate these technologies.

We appreciate the fact that Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed draft regulations to cut methane pollution from existing sources of oil and gas infrastructure, and our organization took the opportunity to submit testimony during this summer’s public comment period. However, it is critical that this rule be strengthened to close the loophole for low-producing wells, which are responsible for half of all emissions in the state. Those emissions should not be left on the table.

Similarly, the Department of Environmental Protection should eliminate the provision that allows operators to reduce the frequency of inspections simply because previous inspections did not reveal significant leaks. Both the latest research and experience of other states demonstrate that a large, uncontrolled leak can happen at any time and can only be detected with frequent, regular inspections. 

In strengthening methane regulations currently under development by the Wolf administration, we can ensure solutions are deployed that grow our economy and protect our environment.

With Pennsylvanians eager to roll up their sleeves and get to work, we urge the Wolf

administration and DEP to strengthen and finalize this rule.

Isaac Brown is the executive director Center for Methane Emissions Solutions.