Penn State brings together government, industry, environment groups to discuss methane emissions regulation of unconventional oil and gas

Penn State President Eric Barron
Penn State President Eric Barron

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Representatives from the state and federal government, the energy industry, environmental groups, and numerous Penn State colleges and campuses came together at Penn State on Nov. 29 for a conference on “Regulatory Approaches to Methane and Other Air Emissions from Unconventional Oil and Gas Operations.” Approximately 100 leaders joined Penn State President Eric Barron, Provost Nick Jones, Vice President for Research Neil Sharkey, Penn State Law and School of International Affairs Dean Hari Osofsky, and other University leaders for the discussion in University Park.

As the first initiative of the new University-wide Center for Energy Law and Policy, the conference brought together these leaders and researchers to explore how emerging science and technology being developed at Penn State and elsewhere could be most effectively incorporated into regulation. Using a draft white paper produced by an interdisciplinary Penn State team as a jumping off point for discussion, the group explored possibilities for constructive progress that could result in regulation that is better for the environment and industry.

Advances in technology have allowed for a rapid and massive expansion of natural gas production in the United States—and in Pennsylvania, in particular. However, federal, state, and local regulations concerning unconventional oil and gas struggle to keep up with these innovations and remain fragmented. In support of Penn State’s land-grant mission to serve the citizens of the Commonwealth, the University organized an interdisciplinary team of experts from Penn State and around the country with expertise in atmospheric science, economics, and law to perform an assessment of appropriate methane emissions and air quality regulation.

Using Pennsylvania’s proposed revision of its air-permitting regulations relevant to unconventional oil and gas development—an update to which was announced by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on Nov. 30—the team is comparing regulatory approaches from around the country, drawing from existing research that has taken direct measurements of current methane and other air emissions from the natural gas value chain, and analyzing different technical approaches to limiting air emissions.

In his opening remarks, Barron noted that the goal of this project, a pilot for the new center, is to bring all of these various stakeholders together to take big step forward.

“We are the type of university that can tackle the enduring problems we face,” he said. “Putting together an extraordinary amount of expertise like we have in this center is not something many universities can do.”

Osofsky, an energy law scholar, noted that the center—and the conference—has two main objectives: to explore how Penn State can most effectively produce independent interdisciplinary research helpful to advancing energy law and policy, and to bring together key stakeholders with differing views and interests to have a constructive dialogue across difference.

“I believe more unites us than divides us on these issues,” she said, “and if we are able to come together to think constructively on these issues, we can find effective ways forward.”

First panel discussionThe conference’s first panel focused on “The Science and Economics of Controlling Methane Emissions from Unconventional Oil and Gas” and featured experts discussing the sources of atmospheric methane, various ways that methane emissions are measured and monitored, and the economics of reducing emissions.

Kenneth Davis, professor of atmospheric and climate science in the Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, noted that the amount of methane in the earth’s atmosphere has doubled since pre-industrial times, largely as a result of fossil fuel use, agriculture, and landfills and waste. In Pennsylvania, the two largest human-related emissions contributors are coal and natural gas, though there is a considerable amount of uncertainty about how much each factor is contributing to the overall amount of methane being emitted.

“We need to reduce emissions,” Davis said. “As part of that, we also need to quantify emissions. If emissions are uncertain, mitigation is also uncertain. If you act to reduce emissions, how do you know you were successful?”

The second panel, “Current and Potential Legal Approaches to Regulating Methane Emissions from Unconventional Oil and Gas,” outlined current state and federal methane emissions regulations, compared the regulatory approaches of several states, and looked ahead to what the regulatory framework might look like in the next four years.

David Spence, professor of law, politics, and regulation at the University of Texas, argued that the most likely area for advancements in regulation is at the state level.

“In states, there is room for more hope, especially in swing states, in addressing problems with methane leakage,” he said. “This is not a problem that lends itself easily to a one-size-fits-all rule; it may be the kind of problem in which voluntary cooperation between industry and academics would be fruitful.”

A lunchtime presentation by Sharkey outlined research initiatives and corporate partnerships at Penn State. He suggested possibilities for new collaborations in the energy area.

Representative Mike CarrollThe third and final panel discussion, “Stakeholder Perspectives: How Can Cutting-Edge Scientific Research Inform Policy?” featured a bipartisan group of panelists from the Pennsylvania Senate and House, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, JKLM Energy, the Environmental Defense Fund, and PennFuture discussing ways they can work together with researchers to promote better-informed policy.

Noting the current divisive state of politics in Harrisburg, Representative Mike Carroll, the Democratic chairman of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, urged both sides to come together to find reasonable solutions to the methane issue.

“For some members, their instinctive response to regulation is ‘no,”’ he said. In the Democratic caucus, he said, there’s the opposite feeling and it’s nearly impossible to reconcile these viewpoints. “I welcome the role of Penn State, because science and data should be the starting point of our conversation.”

The conference closed Jones moderating an open dialogue among all of the attendees.

“Our mission is to serve the citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Jones said. “Did we do that today by hosting this meeting? Was this a contribution toward us fulfilling our land-grant mission? I would like to think that five years from now in this space we will be in a different place than we would have been without this meeting.”

Moving ahead, the core working group will use the feedback from the conference to further refine their research and then bring this larger group back to campus in the spring to further the conversation.

“Most of us are actually in agreement that we are trying to reduce methane emissions. Whether this is driven by environmental or economic reasons, it’s a good goal,” said Osofsky. “Our differences lie in how we get there. If research is going to shape policy, we have to be involved in an engaged dialogue, and this conference was an important step in getting that dialogue started.”