By Mike Tony, Charleston-Gazette Mail
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a final rule targeting a kind of harmful air pollution that has been disproportionately pervasive in West Virginia.
The EPA’s final rule released Saturday for gas and oil operations is designed to significantly lower methane emissions — which accelerate climate change — and other air pollutants that drive cancer risk from oil and gas facilities.
The new rule contains the first ever emissions guidelines under the Clean Air Act for states to follow in developing and implementing plans to establish standards to limit methane emissions from existing sources in the oil and gas sector.
The finalized standards build on methane rulemaking the EPA proposed in 2021 and 2022 that drew submissions of nearly 1 million formal comments — including criticism from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP is expected to play a critical role in carrying out the rule since it requires states to develop and submit a plan for reducing methane from existing sources.
The EPA says the rule will avoid an estimated 58 million tons of methane emissions from 2024 to 2038, nearly 80% less than projected methane emissions without the rule. The agency projects the rule will avoid 16 million tons of smog-forming volatile organic compound emissions and 590,000 tons of air toxics.
The final rule will phase out routine flaring of natural gas from new oil wells, require all well sites and compressor stations to be monitored regularly for leaks and create a “super emitter” program aimed at detecting large emissions events.
The EPA estimates the rule will yield net climate and ozone health benefits of $97 billion to $98 billion dollars from 2024 to 2038 after accounting for the costs of compliance and savings from recovered gas.
By keeping methane from reaching the air, the rule will increase recovery of enough gas that otherwise would be wasted from 2024 to 2038 to heat nearly 8 million homes for the winter, the EPA predicts. Ozone reductions resulting from slashing volatile organic compound emissions will prevent up to 97,000 cases of asthma symptoms and 35,000 lost school days a year, according to the agency.
“We hope this will be a start to rein in damaging pollution from the oil and gas industry,” Jim Kotcon, chair of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, said in an email. “This is one of the most important steps we can take to address the climate emergency.”
W.Va. especially vulnerable
Evidence has emerged that West Virginia, the nation’s fourth-largest producer of marketed gas, stands to benefit disproportionately from lower methane emissions.
At least three-quarters of the population in over a third of West Virginia counties lived within a mile of a gas or oil well according to data published in conjunction with a study released last year. The study was conducted by researchers from the Environmental Defense Fund, a New York-headquartered environmental advocacy nonprofit, and Cornell University and published in the peer-reviewed Population and Environment science journal.
West Virginia has a high concentration of low-producing gas wells.
An April 2022 report in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Communications found that roughly half of all well site methane emissions nationwide come from low-production well sites. The study from Environmental Defense Fund researchers found low-production wells emit six to 12 times as much methane as the average rate for all U.S. well sites.
Wells that produce less than 15 barrels of oil equivalent per day comprised 94% of reported wells in West Virginia in 2020, according to federal Energy Information Administration data — much higher than the 77% clip nationwide.
In a 2018 study of West Virginia well sites, Princeton and McGill university researchers found the EPA underestimates by 7.5 times methane emissions projections from conventional active wells.
“With the large number of oil and gas wells in the state, West Virginians deserve strict controls on harmful pollution.” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said in a statement Saturday applauding the rule.
The DEP objected to EPA-proposed methane rulemaking released in Nov. 2021, arguing in a nine-page comment filed in Jan. 2022 the proposed rule would be too expensive for the agency to implement and could force small local oil and gas businesses to shutter.
DEP Chief Communications Officer Terry Fletcher said Monday the agency is reviewing the rule and would work to maintain compliance with all applicable state and federal air quality rules and regulations.
Key rule provisions
The final rule contains requirements for state plans for existing sources. The requirements include quarterly audible, visual and olfactory surveys in which inspectors listen, look and smell for leaks at single wellhead and multi-wellhead well sites. Such surveys will be every other month for well sites with major production and processing equipment and centralized production facilities.
The final rule also mandates states to submit plans for lowering emissions from existing sources within 24 months. The EPA had proposed to give states only 18 months to submit plans. The rule generally requires that state plans require compliance by no later than 36 months after the plans are due to EPA, meaning existing sources could have up to five years before they must comply with state plan requirements.
The most common emissions by far in the Appalachian basin have been vented emissions — intentional releases of gas from equipment such as gas-driven pneumatic devices, tanks and compressor seals.
The industry uses pneumatic controllers to regulate pressure and temperatures.
The new rule provides a one-year phase-in for zero-emissions standards for new pneumatic controllers, which the rule calls “process controllers,” and most new pumps outside Alaska.
The EPA will collect data from certified third parties to identify and address “super emitting” sources of large leaks and releases.
Under the final rule’s super-emitter program, the EPA will certify third parties, evaluate the data the third parties provide, and send notifications to owners and operators. Once notified, owners and operators must investigate to find the source of the super-emitter event, report the results of the investigation to the EPA and repair any leaks or releases covered by an EPA standard.
Varying responses to rule
Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia Executive Director Charlie Burd said that while his industry trade group was encouraged that the EPA addressed some of the group’s previous comments, the group remains concerned with some provisions, including the third-party monitoring program.
The American Petroleum Institute, a national gas and oil industry group, didn’t weigh in definitively on the new standards either way in a statement Saturday, saying it was reviewing the rule.
The rule’s proponents say it will create jobs in addition to cleaner air in West Virginia.
John Rutecki, Environmental Defense Fund regulatory and legislative manager for Appalachia, called the new rule “a huge win not only for West Virginia’s climate, but for the health and economic wellbeing of all West Virginians.”
An Environmental Defense Fund communications specialist pointed to a study reporting 75% of manufacturing firms and 88% of service firms (57 firms combined) said they would expect to hire more employees if future state or federal methane emission rules were put in place. The methane emissions mitigation industry-focused study released in 2021 was prepared by international consulting firm Datu Research for the Environmental Defense Fund.
“We applaud President Biden for showing the world that we can have good jobs and a clean environment if we act to fight climate change the right way,” BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director Jason Walsh said in a statement released by the EPA welcoming its new rule.
The BlueGreen Alliance is a national coalition of labor unions and environmental groups.
“This final rule is a major victory for our health, the environment, and the global climate, and demonstrates that rigorous enforcement benefits us all,” Kotcon said.
Find more information:
The new rule and related information, including a regulatory impact analysis, can be found at bit.ly/EPA_MethaneReport.
Note: This article originally appeared in the Charleston-Gazette Mail.