The Wolf administration will publish a long-delayed air pollution rule as an emergency measure to hold off federal sanctions that threatened hundreds of millions of dollars for Pennsylvania highway projects.

With a vote Wednesday, the state’s environmental rule-making board reaffirmed its approval of a rule to curb smog-forming and climate-warming pollution from oil and gas wells.

Gov. Tom Wolf will certify that the rule is required to respond to an emergency, which will allow it to take effect immediately upon notice of publication in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

Missing a Dec. 16 deadline to finalize the air pollution rule would trigger a mandatory federal highway funding sanction that Wolf said risks $800 million for road and bridge projects, especially around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. State law allows the governor to fast-track a rule in emergency situations, including if failure to act would require the state to make up for more than $1 million in lost funds.

The rule is identical to one the Environmental Quality Board adopted in October. It applies to existing conventional oil and gas wells, which are generally smaller, shallower and older than wells tapping the Marcellus Shale formation. A companion rule for shale gas wells, dubbed unconventional wells, was approved first and is scheduled to be published as final on Dec. 10.

Trade groups for the state’s conventional oil and gas industry plan to file a lawsuit challenging the rule once it is published, said Kevin Moody, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association. The trade groups said state law requires conventional wells to be regulated separately and independently of shale wells, and the Department of Environmental Protection’s process of developing the two rules did not comply.

Pennsylvania was on the brink of missing the deadline after DEP took more than five years to craft the final rule and Republicans on a state House committee objected to it in mid-November.

The disapproval vote by House Republicans would have blocked the rule from taking effect until next year, based on the timeline for reviewing regulations that is prescribed by state law. That created the conditions for an emergency to prevent the loss of funding, the Wolf administration said. 

By certifying the need for an emergency rule, the governor can cut out the delay, but the Legislature and the state’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission will still be able to review the rule after it takes effect.

DEP expects the rule to cut methane releases from the state’s 27,000 producing conventional well sites by more than half, largely by mandating that equipment that intentionally vents gas be replaced with less leaky parts.

Methane is the main component of natural gas and also a potent greenhouse gas: It traps more than 80 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide over 20 years.

Laura writes about energy and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike.

Laura Legere

Laura writes about energy and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike.