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Justin Wasser: Industry should walk its talk on methane pollution

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In this 2015 file photo, a gas flare is seen at a natural gas processing facility near Williston, N.D.

Methane pollution is real and dangerous. Our federal government acknowledges it. Oil and gas companies admit their role in it. Trade associations and lobbying groups for industry highlight supposed efforts to combat it. Yet, on the issue of solving it through state and federal pollution standards, there remains misinformation and opposition.

The consequences of inaction are dire, which is precisely the reason companies that have committed to cut methane must walk the talk to support requirements to dramatically reduce methane pollution from oil and gas operations.

Methane is a major problem for two reasons. When it is released unburned, as it often is during oil and gas production, it is a dangerous greenhouse gas. In fact, although methane is present in the atmosphere in smaller amounts than carbon dioxide, it is 86 times more powerful at warming the planet. It also tends to frequently leak alongside hazardous air pollutants and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, a known carcinogen , and threatens heart and lung illness by aiding in the creation of smog.

In the United States, the oil and gas industry is the largest source of methane pollution. Since Pennsylvania is the second largest producer in the country and much of the production happens in the southwestern part of our state , we play an outsized role in addressing the issue. Likewise, the success of any effort to reduce methane pollution will have a disproportionate impact at home.

The good news is that the methane pollution problem is not without a solution.

States such as Colorado and California have made great strides in reducing methane and other air pollutants from new and existing sources of oil and gas operations . State-level rules require that companies use best available technologies and frequently detect and repair any methane leaks. Rules in these states have been on the books for awhile now, and although they aren’t perfect, they have proven effective at reducing methane pollution while remaining cost-effective for industry.

In Colorado, methane pollution standards were actually created with, and endorsed by, oil and gas companies. Many companies , such as BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil, have gone so far as signing the “Guiding Principles” pledge to reduce methane emissions , which commits support for policies and rules to minimize methane pollution .

Yet, despite having sound policy solutions in hand, the Trump administration threatens to move us backward by weakening methane pollution safeguards at the federal level. The oil and gas companies that have promised to cut methane have sat quietly while their paid lobbyists at the American Petroleum Institute (API) encouraged the Trump administration to initiate rollbacks of EPA federal methane pollution standards.

We’re seeing it here in Pennsylvania too, where API seems to be arguing against a need for state-level standards. Gov. Tom Wolf has already taken steps to curb methane pollution from new and modified oil and gas facilities. His recent proposal on existing sources for air pollution from industry will need to be improved upon to directly address methane before they are finalized. Yet, Stephanie Catarino Wissman, executive director of the API’s Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania ( “Committed to methane reduction,” Dec. 6, TribLIVE), argues that our state has the most rigorous methane rules — which we do not — and that methane pollution is down, a claim refuted by a peer-reviewed study that shows methane pollution to be five times higher than industry self-
reports to the government.

Methane is a real and dangerous problem. It is acknowledged and admitted. If API and its member companies are sincere in their commitment to reduce methane pollution, then they shouldn’t oppose the solutions requiring them to fulfill their promise.

They should step up to oppose President Trump’s rollback and support Wolf’s state-level standards or step aside from the debate entirely. Because our time to solve this problem is running out.

Justin Wasser, of Spring Hill, is methane communications manager
for Earthworks ( earthworks.org ).

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