Shapiro Orders New Controls on the Oil and Gas Industry in Pennsylvania, Targeting Methane Emissions and Drilling Chemicals

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro announced on Thursday that the state Department of Environmental Protection would take part in a “groundbreaking collaboration” with a natural gas driller and more broadly impose new requirements on the oil and gas industry for “controlling” methane emissions and compelling disclosure of all chemicals used to drill for fossil fuels. 

The new requirements stem from the findings of a grand jury investigation, completed in 2020, which concluded that state agencies failed to protect Pennsylvanians from the “inherent risks” of unconventional gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing technology, or fracking. Shapiro, a Democrat elected governor in 2022, oversaw the grand jury in his previous role as the state’s attorney general.  

The DEP’s collaboration with CNX Resources Corp. will enable the agency to collect air emissions data before, during and after development on new wells, the first of which is in East Finley Township, Washington County. Shapiro described the initiative as “the most intensive independent study of unconventional natural gas wells in the nation.”

Shapiro called himself an “all-of-the-above energy governor” at a press conference announcing the private-public partnership. He said the DEP directive was “a new standard for Pennsylvania’s natural gas to be produced in the most responsible and sustainable way,” in a press release. “With this collaboration, CNX is leading the industry in showing how we can reduce pollution and ensure the health and safety of our communities while still maintaining Pennsylvania’s central role in the nation’s energy economy.” 

Nick Deiuliis, CNX’s president and CEO, said such “operational transparency is good for resident health, the industry worker, economic development, energy security, the environment, and community investment.” 

Shapiro said his administration will “follow the data to determine what kind of health and environmental policy are needed” going forward, before adding that he hopes more oil and gas companies join CNX in voluntarily submitting their sites to DEP testing and analysis.

But some environmentalists remained skeptical of the benefits of the partnership. 

CNX has “a pretty long history of violations,” said Gillian Graber, the founder and director of Protect PT, an environmental nonprofit that raises awareness about oil and gas infrastructure in Pennsylvania. Graber recalled a “major casing failure” at a CNX well pad in 2019, which she said was “completely preventable.” As a result of the failure, the company flared gas from nine of its wells. 

“I feel like this is pretty counterproductive,” she continued.

Tom Schuster, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, said the organization was “pleased that the Governor is trying to use the existing authority that he has to hold the industry accountable.”

But Schuster said he doesn’t believe the state’s partnership with CNX will turn oil and gas operations in Pennsylvania into a sustainable industry. “Gas is not part of a clean energy future that’s climate responsible,” he said, and added that “CNX has a history of greenwashing its operations.” 

Despite the partnership with CNX, both Graber and Schuster expressed a desire to work with the DEP on regulations governing oil and gas operations. Schuster said the Sierra Club is “looking forward to engaging with the administration to make sure those rules are as comprehensive as possible.”

Graber is pleased that there could be new rules and policy governing Pennsylvania oil and gas companies’ methane emissions, and said “there’s a lot of room for the DEP to do a much better job” of enforcing whatever regulations come as a result of the agency’s study. Still, she said she wishes the DEP was consulting with public health experts and residents impacted by oil and gas infrastructure as part of this new regulatory initiative, instead of a company with “interests in making money, not public health.”  

David Callahan, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group that represents the unconventional oil and gas industry in the Appalachian Basin, said that “any legislation or regulation that seeks to further restrict energy development will harm our economy, undermine personal property rights, and reverse the significant environmental and air quality progress enabled by natural gas.” 

He added that the organization has sought and welcomed  “conversation with Governor Shapiro, as we do with all public officials, about our existing robust regulatory structure, our commitment to the health and safety of our communities and the need to remain competitive in today’s global marketplace.”

Pennsylvania is home to hundreds of thousands of active and inactive oil and gas wells, which bore deep into the state’s geological formations, principally the gas-rich Marcellus Shale. Millions of gallons of water laced with lubricating chemicals are pumped at high pressure thousands of feet underground to force natural gas out of tiny seams in the shale through a  process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” 

Environmentalists across the state have warned for decades about the harms fracking can pose to communities and the environment. The Physicians for Social Responsibility, in a report released last month, reported that oil and gas producers used 160 million pounds of chemicals in oil and gas drilling, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a toxic and pervasive class of chemicals, in eight wells. 

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Alongside emissions, oil and gas drilling yields a toxic wastewater known as “produced water.” The fluid is highly saline and often contains toxic proprietary drilling chemicals, as well as natural substances from deep underground—benzene, arsenic and radium 226 and 228, both radioactive isotopes, among others. 

Given its toxicity, Pennsylvania’s produced water is usually stored underground in injection wells in or out of state, or spread on the Pennsylvania’s roadways as a dust and ice suppressant. The latter was outlawed for the unconventional oil and gas industry in 2016, with a moratorium in place since 2018 on roadway use of produced water from conventional wells. 

In his announcement on Thursday, Shapiro said that he had instructed the DEP to immediately pursue “formal rulemaking and policy changes” to require disclosure of all fracking chemicals. Current state law requires drillers to disclose the names of those chemicals to the DEP but allows them to be withheld from the public, on the grounds that they constitute proprietary trade secrets. 

The new regulations and policies, Shapiro said, would also require “improved control of methane emissions,” a super-pollutant 86 times more potent at warming the earth’s atmosphere over 20 years than CO2, which would align with forthcoming federal policy; stronger “drilling waste protections”; increased “secondary containment” inspections to ensure that the structures which are supposed to prevent leaks at well sites are operating properly, and more robust “corrosion protections for gathering lines that transport natural gas” from drilling sites to major pipelines.

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