Ban Fracking, Don't Just Inspect For Methane Leaks

Posted on June 26, 2020 · 13 mins read


A bombshell was dropped today as PA Attorney General released a grand jury report showing the damage to life and planet caused by the fracking industry, and how officials in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Department of Health (DOH) looked the other way, ignoring complaints of citizens living near fracking and oil and gas infrastructure. I myself have participated in previous DEP hearings, only to have our pleas fall on deaf ears as DEP approved pipelines and other oil/gas infrastructure.

The Grand Jury report is both sickening and angering. The fracking industry can drill wells right next to homes – just 500 feet from a door. The noise and lights of construction and operations keeps families awake at all hours of day and night. Vibrations shook the houses and land. Drinking water went from clean to contaminated, even described as a “black sludge” at times, and tasted awful and burned the skin. Fracking waste water released fumes into the area that burned lungs and created “frack rash” on the skin. Pets and farm animals died, and children developed various conditions that doctors had trouble treating – in part because the chemicals used by the fracking industry are considered “proprietary information”, and so families don’t even know exactly what it is they’re being exposed to.

The report points to failures of both DEP and DOH. DOH ordered employees to ignore health complaints related to the fracking industry, which meant DOH was not doing the health research it normally does when reports start coming in. DEP did not take enough action to protect our water and air, and seems plagued by a problem where fracking experts at DEP would leave the department for high-paying jobs in the industry – a clear conflict of interest, where DEP was basically training people to become consultants as it refused to hold the industry accountable for its actions.

The Grand Jury report makes several recommendations for transparency, an end to the “revolving door” between regulators and industry jobs, and for DEP to use criminal prosecution against the fracking industry. While these are all a start, I don’t believe they go far enough.

I believe we need to immediately ban fracking statewide, for our health and safety as well as health of the planet in the face of accelerating climate change. Rather than investing in more fracking, pipelines, and petrochemicals, our state must urgently redirect funds into a Green New Deal to transition us away from the oil and gas industries as quickly as possible. The longer our state stays addicted to fossil fuels, the more families will suffer and the more the planet will face ecological crisis. There’s no reason when we can have both a strong economy and a health planet under a Green New Deal.

DEP recently [proposed new rules][dep-rules] governing the inspection and repair of oil and gas infrastructure in order to curb leaks of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and methane. The PA DEP offered a number of public hearings to take comments on the draft rule, and so I naturally submitted some remarks, not just on the rule itself, but on the need to move beyond fossil fuels as I described above. I submitted the following public comment on Thursday, June 25th:

My name is Garret Wassermann and I am a resident of Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh.

Siberia this past week experienced the first temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in recorded history. Pennsylvania’s status as the 2nd largest gas producer and the 3rd largest contributor to greenhouse gases in the US means that Pennsylvania’s business decisions echo across the entire planet and are a large contributor to the global climate crisis. The decisions we make today determine whether that crisis will be addressed, or get worse.

The DEP proposal identifies methane as a potent greenhouse gas “with a global warming potential more than 28 times that of carbon dioxide”. Clearly DEP understands the damage caused by methane when it states on page 15 of the proposed rules that “reducing methane leaks from oil and natural gas sources is essential to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and protecting public health.”

It is therefore perplexing why this proposal seems to lack urgency. First, the draft rules would exempt inspections and repairs for wells that produce smaller amounts of gas and oil; but these so-called “low-producing wells” actually produce half of the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions, so no rule will be effective without addressing smaller wells. Second, the draft rule contains another exemption allowing oil and gas operators to reduce frequency of inspections if previous inspections did not find significant leaks; but research shows most large leaks are random and therefore require consistent and frequent inspections. Both loopholes must be fixed.

But these loopholes point to a larger problem: the rules seem to be concerned more with lowering costs on oil and gas operators than protecting our planet or our Article 1 Section 27 rights to clean air and pure water under the Pennsylvania Constitution.

A recent NPR article from May 2020 discussed a study that indicated the shale gas industry leaked about seven times the methane as reported by the Pennsylvania DEP, while the conventional gas industry leaked even more methane – as high as 15 times more than reported. These leaks are much larger and much more damaging than the proposed rules acknowledge.

Even more concerning, Reuters reported recently, on June 16th, 2020, about the growing methane threats from abandoned oil and gas wells across the country. “More than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells together emitted 281 kilotons of methane in 2018”, the article points out. “That’s the climate-damage equivalent of consuming about 16 million barrels of crude oil, according to an EPA calculation, or about as much as the United States, the world’s biggest oil consumer, uses in a typical day,” it continues. The proposed rules seem to only apply to existing, operating wells. What is DEP’s plan to address leaks from abandoned wells? How will oil and gas operators be held responsible, or will DEP leave the financial, health, and environmental costs to be suffered by the people of this commonwealth and the planet for the sake of boosting private profits?

Climate scientists have given us a deadline – 2030, less than 10 years from today – to make significant progress at reducing all sources of carbon, including methane, if we are to have a good chance at minimizing the disastrous effects of climate change. With the Arctic melting, we may have even less time. This proposed rule is not urgent enough when facing that timeline. I urge DEP to close the loopholes I described, but also to consider revisions or new rules addressing all carbon emissions in general, not just from leaks, but from the use of natural gas and oil itself. The only rule that will successfully address our health and climate is one that plugs abandoned wells, bans unconventional “fracking”, and promotes an urgent transition away from oil and gas and to renewable energy sources over the next decade.

Garret Wassermann

I had also previously supported a letter from the Better Path Coalition on this subject. The full text of the letter to the DEP is provided below:

Re: Proposed Rulemaking: Control of VOC Emissions from Oil and Natural Gas Sources (#7-544)

The Better Path Coalition is submitting the following comment on behalf of its members and the undersigned.

Shale gas development began in Pennsylvania 16 years ago. Little was understood about the activities involved or the wide range of risks peer-reviewed science has since identified. Over time, methane’s roles as a major polluter and a significant contributor to global warming became well-understood. Particularly impactful are the methane leaks that occur at every phase of shale gas development and beyond when wells that are no longer active deteriorate for lack of maintenance.

Many environmental advocacy groups have been campaigning for years for methane regulations. Fracking was done in Pennsylvania for over 14 years before any rules were adopted and those only pertained to new wells. After more campaigning, the state is now considering rules for existing wells. Unfortunately, as the title of the proposed rulemaking states, the current round of rulemaking targets VOC emissions. Methane emissions are secondary. Methane isn’t even mentioned until page seven of the proposal.

Since shale gas development began in Pennsylvania, the need to address climate change by leaving fossil fuels in the ground has only become clearer and more urgent. The proposed rules have many flaws, but their major defect is that they say nothing about how they would serve only as a temporary, mitigating measure until the transition away from fossil fuels can be completed. The words and phrases ‘transition,’ ‘renewable energy,’ and ‘alternative energy’ do not appear in the proposal.

The proposal states on page 15 that “reducing methane leaks from oil and natural gas sources is essential to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and protecting public health.” When Governor Wolf announced the rules on new wells in 2016, he said, “We are uniquely positioned to be a national leader in addressing climate change while supporting and ensuring responsible energy development, creating new jobs, and protecting public health and our environment.” When this current proposal was announced, Governor Wolf said, “The new regulations will help identify and prevent leaks from existing wells and infrastructure, while protecting the environment, reducing climate change, and helping businesses reduce the waste of a valuable product.” It is clear that the absence of references to a drawdown of methane production or the transition away from fossil fuels is not accidental. The proposed rules are not intended to be part of a plan to phase out fossil fuels. To the contrary, they are intended to put a happy face on continued and even expanded methane production. “Look, we’ve made fracking safe,” is the dangerous, false, and unacceptable implication. Campaigners’ time would have been better spent calling, as the Better Path Coalition does, for an outright ban on fracking.

We oppose the proposed rules because we believe they would only encourage more fracking, which would harm Pennsylvanians and take the state in the wrong direction on climate change. To borrow a metaphor Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace, and Martin Bourque, Executive Director of the Ecology Center, used in an op-ed regarding plastics waste, when the bathtub is overflowing, what do you do first? Do you grab towels and start mopping up the water or do you turn off the tap? Our government has chosen a third option, a preposterous one, to turn up the pressure. What communities in the shale fields, on the paths of pipelines, and near the sites of the attendant infrastructure already know is that there simply aren’t enough towels. We need to turn off the tap. We will not succeed in addressing the climate crisis if we do not stop producing greenhouse gases in Pennsylvania.

DEP and DOH must prioritize our health and our planet before it is too late.

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