Air quality concerns raised as gas compressor stations multiply
The number of natural gas compressor stations planned for Northeastern Pennsylvania is multiplying as companies lay more pipelines to carry Marcellus Shale gas to customers.
The state has issued or is considering 29 air quality permits for separate stations in the northeast region, all of them in Susquehanna, Wyoming and Luzerne counties, according to a tally by the Department of Environmental Protection. Nearly two dozen of the permits are for stations planned within a 15-mile radius of the Susquehanna County seat in Montrose.
DEP has issued 383 of the permits statewide since October 2005, according to the agency’s tally. Not all of the permitted stations have been built and some may never materialize.
The permits cover facilities related to gas production, including compressor stations and dehydration units that strip liquid from the gas and speed it up for transport through interstate pipelines.
Each station emits a mix of pollutants – volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), formaldehyde and greenhouse gasses – in varying amounts that are limited by the type of permit governing the site.
Residents concerned about the proliferating stations’ impact on air quality have brought basic questions to public hearings in the region that are sometimes held as the state considers issuing permits: How many compressor stations will be built here? What is the combined impact of all these new pollution sources? When, if ever, can the state say stop?
The state considers the cumulative effect of the compressors using an existing network of monitoring stations that measure the ambient air quality, mostly in urban areas, Mark Wejkszner, DEP’s regional air quality program manager, told an audience at a hearing this spring in Susquehanna County. The closest monitors are in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, about 30 miles away.
Pollution levels above federal air quality standards measured at those stations would determine if the state issues fewer or stricter permits, he said, but “right now, we’re in compliance with all of them with a lot of leeway.”
Environmental groups have criticized the state in lawsuits, letters to federal regulators and in public comments on proposed permits and regulations arguing that DEP is not doing all it can under the law to limit the amount of pollution the oil and gas facilities are allowed to emit.
They say that the state’s current air quality monitoring network is inadequate to measure the impacts of gas drilling and infrastructure in rural areas far from the established monitors clustered in population centers and point out that it is too late now – years into the development of the gas-rich shale – to measure what the air was like before the wells, pipelines and compressors were built.
“DEP does not have a comprehensive monitoring program to monitor contaminants in the air throughout the shale play regions of the state,” PennFuture president George Jugovic Jr. said. “We’re not monitoring for VOCs in these rural areas. We’re not monitoring for toxics. Having already begun this development, baseline is not really a question anymore. Now the question is can we get monitoring to ensure there are no local or regional impacts as we move forward.”
Jugovic was the director of DEP’s southwest regional office prior to joining PennFuture last year. He testified at a state House Democratic Policy Committee hearing in February that his former regional office alone has permitted over 13,000 tons per year of NOx emissions from compressor stations. If each station emitted the maximum allowed by its permit, it would add up to about 10 percent of the NOx emissions from all sources of air pollution statewide.
Nitrogen oxides, which are commonly released in car exhaust and cigarette smoke and by burning fossil fuels, can contribute to respiratory problems and lung damage on their own as well as when they are combined with sunlight and volatile organic compounds to form smog.
Environmental groups also say the state is not using a tool frequently enough that would limit emissions by considering connected wells, pipelines and compressors owned by the same company and built near one another as one pollution source governed by one, stricter permit – a process called aggregation.
None of the oil and gas air pollution sources permitted in Northeastern Pennsylvania have been aggregated, a DEP spokeswoman said, but all of them have been evaluated to see if the aggregation rules apply.
“It’s like a cumulative impact assessment,” Jugovic said. “If you look at each pollution source individually, it never looks like a significant impact on the air or the water. But whenever you look at it more holistically, you start seeing a bigger potential impact, which may lead you to regulate it differently.”
“The point, of course, is that you’re not nickel-and-diming your air quality to death.”
The Clean Air Council, a Philadelphia-based environmental group, petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in February to, among other things, challenge a new state aggregation policy that emphasizes proximity – pollution sources within a quarter-mile – when considering whether or not to combine them as one source.
Aggregated sources that trigger a stronger, federal air pollution permit have to use stricter pollution controls and are required to monitor and test a station’s emissions more often, Clean Air Council staff attorney David Presley said.
General state permits that the council has reviewed call for testing to prove a station is not exceeding its permitted limits anywhere from every 100 days to every three years, he said.
“Frankly, we don’t really know what’s coming out of them,” he said. “They have permit conditions they have to adhere to, but you’re only checking, at the least, once every three years. That’s not very good.”
Natural gas companies say that they are using ever better technology to limit emissions, adopting new equipment with fewer emissions before the law requires it.
Clayton Roesler, manager of permitting for Williams Companies, detailed sophisticated air pollution control equipment that is used at each of its stations. Since Williams acquired the Laser Northeast Gathering System earlier this year, the company controls about half of the Marcellus-related air quality permits issued by the state in Susquehanna, Wyoming and Luzerne counties.
Last week, Williams withdrew three permit applications for planned stations in Liberty and Forest Lake townships in Susquehanna County that were the subject of an April hearing. It plans to submit new applications for the same sites with smaller compressor engines, although it is not yet clear how many engines it will propose to install, a spokeswoman said.
The current lean-burn compressor engines that run on methane – “far and away the least polluting fuel source that we have” – release about a tenth of the nitrogen oxides that the best engines emitted a decade ago, Roesler said. And rich-burn engines that can currently be used for relatively low-horsepower facilities reduce all of the pollutants even more.
The amount of nitrogen oxides released into the air at each site each year is “like teacups of water compared to Lake Erie,” he said.
“We have to meet the national air quality standards at the fence line of the facility,” he said. “That’s what drives us back to the technology. It’s primarily focused on people working and living in proximity to that facility so they are not impacted negatively.”
The state has responded to concerns about air quality impacts by planning to place a new monitoring station in Bradford County this year to measure the precursor elements of ground-level ozone, or smog, in one of the state’s busiest gas-drilling counties. The station will be located west of Towanda, downwind of Marcellus Shale well sites and gas processing facilities, according to the state’s proposed air monitoring network plan for 2012 and 2013.
It is also conducting a long-term air quality monitoring study in southwestern Pennsylvania near gas processing plants, compressors and other pollution sources. And, for the first time, it has gathered an inventory of emissions from natural gas sources, which was due to the department by June 1. The information will be submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at the end of the year and is not yet publicly available.
There are currently no plans for a long-term monitoring station in Susquehanna County, DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly said.
“There’s just not a need yet,” she said.
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre stations and the new station in Bradford County will help the state evaluate the need for more monitoring sites, she said.
Residents who want to encourage Marcellus Shale gas development have begun to push back against citizens and groups that have raised protests about the stations and their air emissions.
At a recent Susquehanna County hearing, Jim Barbour, who will host one of the planned stations on his property, said Susquehanna County is fortunate to have Marcellus Shale packed with dry methane that emits fewer toxic chemicals, like benzene, than so-called wet gas in other parts of the state. He also urged residents to consider the positive effect of using natural gas to displace dirtier fossil fuels.
“These couple of compressor stations, yes that might affect our neighborhood in a slight way, but look at the bigger picture – getting gas to market that can change our country,” he said. “Am I concerned about the air at my farm? I’m not. And I’m glad to be part of the process.”
By Laura Legere (Staff Writer)
Published: June 18, 2012