Pa.’s Top Environmental Regulator: Natural Gas Improves Air Quality, Further Progress to Come

The increased production and use of local natural gas have already allowed Pennsylvania to meet key environmental goals, but there’s additional opportunity for clean air progress as more natural gas is used in power generation and transportation, the state’s environmental protection secretary said during a budget hearing this week.

During testimony at a House budget hearing, Pa. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Patrick McDonnell credited natural gas for achieving Obama-era proposed Clean Power Plan goals ahead of schedule.

“We’ve seen for example, the Clean Power Plan proposal that the Obama administration put forward, we were already well on our way in large part – and actually since met what were proposed goals – primarily because of the shift towards cleaner natural gas. We’ve seen improvements on ozone, we’ve seen improvements in those asthma precursors, those VOCs and nitrogen oxides.”

From 1990-2017, emissions from six key pollutants (carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide) plummeted 73 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Administration’s (EPA) 2018 Air Report. These significant reductions occurred as natural gas development and use ramped up- today, U.S. natural gas consumption rates have increased 41 percent since 1990.

According to EPA air quality data released this week, emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) from power generation fell 4 percent and 6 percent respectively from 2017 to 2018, as natural gas gains an increasingly larger share of U.S. power generation.

“These data show that America is enjoying ever cleaner air as our economy grows, and the U.S. continues as a global leader in clean air progress,” said EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Bill Wehrum. “Through state and federal fulfillment of the Clean Air Act, and advances by the power sector, we’ve seen significant reductions in key pollutants while electricity generation has increased.”

But we aren’t done seeing the benefits of natural gas – McDonnell noted that there’s a lot of potential for the expanded use of this abundant resource:

There’s still a big opportunity in the transportation space. Both electric vehicles, which are primarily fed by natural gas power plants at this point, and well as natural gas vehicles.”

The use of compressed natural gas has been growing, especially to power public transportation buses. Bus fleets across the Commonwealth, including Rabbittransit, LCTA and Amtran, are switching to a CNG-powered fleet to take advantage of the fuel’s economic and environmental savings.  

Recently, in fact, MSC’s David Spigelmyer talked about the air quality progress achieved with natural gas during an interview on KDKA-AM:

“Natural gas touches our lives in so many ways… and now a third of our power generation supply is not only producing the energy we use to live every day on a 24/7 basis but it’s also helping us clean our air. We’re going to meet the Paris Accord of 2025 today because we’re using more natural gas…

“You don’t hear about this very often because it doesn’t fit the narrative, but we have dropped carbon dioxide emissions over the last ten years. We’ve dropped nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate emissions because we’re burning more natural gas in our power generation facilities.

“I grew up in central Pennsylvania, I’m active in the conservation community today and on a couple of boards. I’m very much focused on making sure it’s done correctly. One of the reasons our coalition was put together was to modernize the framework for development in Pennsylvania and I’m proud of the fact that we’ve continued to improve from an environmental perspective, today having over a 98% compliance rate. There’s no industry that’s under the kind of scrutiny the shale industry is under.”

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