Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new rules that will require gas drillers to reduce air pollution from their operations. This is welcome news for Pennsylvania as gas drilling brings new sources of air pollution to areas where any new pollution threatens to push air quality to unhealthy levels and to rural areas where the air used to be clean. The new rule also requires gas drillers to prevent methane from leaking into the air during the last phase of the drilling process. The new regulations apply to all phases of gas production – drilling, processing, storage and transmission.
The requirement to capture methane during the last stages of the drilling process when the first flowback water and gas begin to come out of the well, a process known as green completion, will substantially reduce natural gas’ overall contribution to climate change. It also makes a well more profitable since the methane is pumped right into a pipeline in a green completion.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and a debate has been raging among researchers and drilling activists about the climate benefits of burning natural gas to produce electricity. Much of our electricity is generated by burning coal. Natural gas has markedly reduced emissions of the primary greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) than does coal. If the drilling process releases large amounts of methane, it could cancel out the CO2 benefit of natural gas.
However, the requirement to do green completions does not apply to exploratory or delineation wells. In Pennsylvania most exploratory wells aren’t what you might think – wells drilled in areas where the drillers are unsure they will find gas. The drillers know they will find gas in the Marcellus. Exploratory wells are essentially those that are drilled in areas where the pipeline infrastructure to take the gas to market does not yet exist. In many areas of Pennsylvania the gas drillers have run well ahead of pipeline construction, so until January 2015 those drillers will be required to flare the escaping gas to destroy the methane and other pollution that escapes as a well comes into production.
The new EPA regulations ensure that all drillers will be required to control methane emissions from all wells by 2015, and that will settle the debate about whether or not natural gas is better than coal for producing electricity. The new rule will also prevent the deterioration of air quality in both our cities and rural areas that are in the Marcellus gas field.