Split and kill: the quest to avoid regulation by PA’s oil and gas industry

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and his Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have proposed a rule to help reduce the dangerous methane pollution problem from oil and gas operations in the state. 

But as it is written now, this proposal excludes tens of thousands of low-producing oil and gas wells and facilities–and the pollution that comes with them. There is a clear distinction to make here: low producing does not mean low emitting.

This loophole would leave an estimated half of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas climate pollution wafting into the atmosphere and abandon many residents in need of protection.

This wouldn’t be the first time oil and gas operators evaded rules to protect public health and the environment. As the saying goes, exceptions prove the rule. But what happens when exceptions become the rule and standard operating procedure for how the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania handles oil and gas polluters? 

Many Pennsylvania oil and gas operators seem determined to find out. 

Some Pennsylvania drillers get special treatment

In 2016, conventional operators argued that new environmental protection rules shouldn’t apply to them, claiming  they act responsibly and barely pollute. There was ample evidence to dispel such myths, including the widespread use of inherently polluting hydraulic fracturing and a large number of environmental violations. 

Yet members of the legislature and Governor Wolf proceeded to kill a set of regulations for conventional operators that were five years in the making and widely supported by Pennsylvanians. Some legislators have even insisted that weak regulations from nearly 40 years ago suffice for this type of operation.

Now some conventional drillers are eyeing another chance for a free pass. 

This time it’s in the form of an exemption for “low-producing wells” in upcoming rules to reduce oil and gas methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) pollution. The operators of such wells insist it’s too costly to inspect and fix equipment on a regular basis. As before, there is clear evidence to refute their false claims of financial inability and limited pollution impact 

This exemption would particularly benefit the conventional drilling industry, with its many older and smaller wells–even though “low-producing” does not mean these wells are low-polluting. They aren’t.

Conventional industry apologists are even asserting that the VOC and methane rules shouldn’t apply to them because of a  2016 bill requiring separate sets of regulations. But the rules are based on state law allowing the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to take steps to prevent and reduce air pollution, as well as the US Clean Air Act. 

In addition, the federal pollution control measures underpinning the proposed rules apply to existing sources of oil and gas pollution across the industry as a whole, with no distinction for “conventional” or “unconventional” operations. The same goes for federal VOC and methane control rules for new pollution sources.

In the meantime, DEP has identified 12,000 orphan and abandoned wells statewide (out of an estimated 200,000), reflecting the very costly legacy of conventional operators. In 2019 alone, DEP issued 360 violations to conventional operators for “failure to plug the well upon abandoning it,” as well as nearly 300 violations for mishandling polluting waste. 

The environmental and health harms and criminal acts caused by Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry are mounting. As the years go on, the regulatory divide pedaled by conventional operators is not just artificial, based on falsehoods, and designed to avoid oversight–it’s also downright dangerous for the Commonwealth’s air, water, land, and communities. 

Governor Wolf’s existing source rule can still be strengthened to close loopholes and put the state on a path toward meaningful climate action. The question is whether he will act or prove the oil and gas industry still has enough undue influence in Harrisburg to carve out another special exemption for themselves that leaves Pennsylvanians in harm’s way.

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