At the December meeting of the DEP’s Air Quality Technical Advisory Committee, representatives from the DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality presented the committee with some proposed changes they are planning to address methane emissions from natural gas operations. Specifically, the DEP is proposing to revise its existing general permit program to regulate emissions from new unconventional well sites and pigging stations. As cited below, the industry has some major concerns with this proposal.
The DEP, since 2013, has had in place a general permit (GP-5) to cover emission sources at natural gas compression and processing facilities. A GP-5 constitutes a plan approval and general operating permit for the facility it covers. Gas well sites are not part of this plan approval program. To address gas well sites, the DEP created a permit exemption (Category Number 38) for well site emissions. This Exemption 38, as it is commonly referred, is not an exemption in the true sense of the word, rather it establishes a set of criteria that must be met to qualify for the exemption. The criteria include specific limits on emissions, the collection and submission of a significant amount of information and documentation, a leak detection and repair program and limits on flaring. These criteria have worked well by giving operators parameters to meet once the wells at the site were put into production.
An early 2016 announcement by Governor Wolf, that Pennsylvania would develop a new methane reduction strategy for oil and gas operations, set the DEP on a course to modify this existing program. At the December Air Quality Advisory Technical Advisory Committee meeting the DEP announced the new GP-5A. This new general permit will cover emissions at new or modified unconventional gas well sites and remote pigging stations. Exemption 38 will continue to exist but only for existing well sites. The operator of a new or modified site will now have to obtain authorization to proceed with site development by obtaining site specific plan approval via a GP-5A. Unfortunately, this article doesn’t permit this author to elaborate on the numerous industry concerns with the requirements that must be met to qualify for a GP-5A. Perhaps the greatest concern will be the conundrum DEP will be creating by asking for site specific emission data in the pre-construction phase – data can only be obtained via measurements taken in the operational phase. Additionally, one can question how resource development will be impacted if another pre-construction permit must be obtained from an already understaffed DEP.
It is clear to most that the existing Exemption 38 program, coupled with the federal requirements under the EPA’s OOOOa regulations, provide ample reduction and control of well site emissions. It is likely the proposed GP-5A will provide no new or measureable protection for the environment while seriously complicating natural gas development in Pennsylvania.