Condensate tanks at the Range Resources natural gas facility in Robinson Township, Washington County, Pennsylvania.

Condensate tanks at the Range Resources natural gas facility in Robinson Township, Washington County, Pennsylvania. Garth Lenz, courtesy of the Environmental Integrity Project and International League of Conservation Photographers

How a Legal Loophole Allows Gas Leaks to Keep on Flowing

A new federal rule will cut major methane emissions from natural gas production. But residents of Pennsylvania’s fracking region contend that the cumulative impact of smaller leaks, which go unreported, will continue unabated, compromising their air, water, and health.

In the rolling hills of Washington County, west of Pittsburgh, natural gas infrastructure dots the formerly agricultural landscape, which is surrounded by fencing and signs that warn the public to keep out.

The sites were built starting in the mid-2000s to extract an abundance of natural gas from the Marcellus Formation using hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the technique that has long been blamed for tainting groundwater with a range of chemicals used to split open gas-bearing rock thousands of feet down. The practice also emits methane and other harmful gases into the atmosphere.

Christopher and Janet Lauff live in Washington County’s Mount Pleasant Township, about 1,000 feet from the former site of an impoundment for fracking waste and a “pig launcher” — a mechanism used for cleaning, monitoring, and maintaining natural gas pipelines. The couple claims both facilities contaminated the air around their home with leaks of methane, volatile organic compounds, and other pollutants linked with natural gas production.

The problem began years ago. In 2009, Range Resources, a gas driller based in Fort Worth, Texas, proposed leasing a portion of the Lauffs’ eight acres for their facilities, but the couple declined. “I’ve seen what it’s done in other parts of the country,” said Christopher Lauff, 63, a chemical engineer, in an interview at his home. “I tried to convince neighbors but all they saw was dollar signs.”

Midstream gas facilities have avoided tighter regulation because their emissions fall below levels regulated by the Clean Air Act.

After the Lauffs rejected Range’s offer, the company built its impoundment and pig launcher on neighboring property, then removed it in 2015 and 2016 after state and federal officials found the company had violated air regulations.

But the damage was done, say the Lauffs. Testing performed in 2014 revealed that Christopher had benzene, a carcinogen, in his blood, in addition to toluene, a solvent linked with liver, kidney, and nerve damage, and arsenic, a toxic but naturally occurring element that is brought up from underground during gas drilling. The toxicology report from his doctor warned him that cancer was a potential long-term concern.

The Lauffs are now suing Range Resources, in addition to the natural gas processing and transportation company MarkWest Energy Partners, the pipeline operator Sunoco, and several of their contractors. They are claiming negligence, nuisance, and trespass.

Unlike people who live near wellheads or processing plants, the Lauffs claim to have been exposed by midstream emissions, which leak from compressor stations, storage facilities, condensate tanks, flaring towers, processing sites, and miles of twisting pipework. Throughout the United States, such facilities have avoided tighter regulation because their individual emissions fall below levels regulated under Title V of the Clean Air Act.

The MarkWest natural gas processing plant in Chartiers Township, Washington County, Pennsylvania.

The MarkWest natural gas processing plant in Chartiers Township, Washington County, Pennsylvania. Garth Lenz, courtesy of the Environmental Integrity Project and International League of Conservation Photographers

A new federal rule, finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency in December, is intended to slash methane emissions from oil and gas operations — the largest industrial source of methane pollution in the U.S. — by almost 80 percent nationally over the next 15 years. The agency also aims to reduce emissions of smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by 16 million tons and cut the output of toxic air pollutants like benzene and toluene by 590,000 tons.

Notably, the rule — which promotes use of advanced methane-detecting technology — will apply to the entire natural gas system, including well sites, gathering and boosting compressor stations, and processing, transmission, and storage facilities. According to the EPA, emissions from transmission, storage, and processing accounted for a quarter of the industry’s total in 2021. Other estimates of midstream emissions are far higher. In 2021, a study published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters found that methane leaks from midstream activities in Texas’s Permian Basin were 20 percent higher than national estimates, and in 2022, a study in the same journal estimated methane emissions from the Permian’s natural gas “gathering” pipelines — which connect wells with processing plants — were up to 52 times higher than the EPA’s national estimate.

The solution is simple, advocates say: Aggregate minor standalone emissions, then regulate them as major sources of pollution.

The new EPA rule will “deliver major climate and health benefits for all Americans,” the EPA said in a statement. But it won’t fully address the concerns of the Lauffs and others who breathe midstream emissions. That’s because the rule covers only single “major” sources that emit pollutants — such as carbon monoxide, particulates, and nitrogen oxides — that hit prescribed thresholds. Though it covers a wider range of sources, it won’t combine, or aggregate, leaks that come from a multitude of “minor” sources.

“Unfortunately, EPA allows this to happen,” said Ilan Levin, associate director at the Austin, Texas, office of the Environmental Integrity Project, a national nonprofit that campaigns for the enforcement of environmental laws. “The law never did contemplate the problem. It happens in Texas, it happens everywhere. EPA over the years has spent more time and attention on what they call major sources [and] has basically turned a blind eye to many of the minor source problems.”

The solution, say the Lauffs and advocacy groups that support them, is relatively simple. Aggregate those minor standalone emissions with sites near each other, and they will automatically be subject to tighter restrictions as major sources of pollution.

A "pig launcher," used for maintaining gas pipelines, in New Wilmington Township, Pennsylvania.

A "pig launcher," used for maintaining gas pipelines, in New Wilmington Township, Pennsylvania. Karen Kasmauski, courtesy of the Environmental Integrity Project and International League of Conservation Photographers

Without aggregation, say both the Environmental Integrity Project and Physicians for Social Responsibility, natural gas operators will ensure that their emissions from midstream sites stay below Title V levels. People living near fracking sites will continue to be exposed to nitrogen oxides, which can cause respiratory irritation and shortness of breath; carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas produced by burning fossil fuels that can be fatal in high concentrations; particulate matter such as PM2.5, a microscopic substance that can impair lung and heart function; and VOCs such as benzene and toluene, both potential carcinogens.

“There’s a whole range of chemicals that come out of these leaks, and they are usually undetected,” said Alex Bomstein, legal director of the Clean Air Council, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit. “Even if you’re emitting collectively the same amount of pollution, you can get away with lighter regulations.” And if you’re talking about one project or two related projects that are relatively close to one another and are being coordinated but not aggregated, he added, “then you are incentivizing this kind of gamesmanship.”

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry, said its midstream facilities comply with state and federal rules. “Natural gas midstream facilities are designed and constructed in response to customer demand and permitted in accordance with state and federal regulations,” David Callahan, president of the trade group, said in a statement. Range Resources did not respond to a request for comment.

By allowing midstream facilities to be regulated as minor sources, officials are ranking production over public health, says an expert.

Starting in 2012, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) imposed a rule that enabled aggregation of emissions from midstream sources, but it dropped that rule in 2018 and now relies on federal standards to determine whether to combine minor emissions.

“DEP only combines sources at midstream natural gas infrastructure or natural gas wells in an aggregate facility if it meets the criteria in EPA’s guidance on single-source determination for oil and natural gas facilities,” said DEP spokeswoman Josslyn Howard.

The federal rule counts midstream facilities as candidates for aggregation only if they are controlled by the same operator, are on the same site, or are within a quarter-mile of each other, she said. And for sources in midstream natural gas infrastructure to be considered major, the facility must have the potential to emit 100 tons per year or more of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, or particulate matter with aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 microns or less.

Aggregation is unusual, noted Nathan Deron, a program manager for the nonprofit Environmental Health Project (EHP), which monitors the effects of gas drilling on southwestern Pennsylvania communities. “Midstream facilities are usually in areas where there is enough land so that facilities owned by the same company do not need to be placed on adjacent parcels.”

A natural gas flare in Pulaski Township, Pennsylvania

A natural gas flare in Pulaski Township, Pennsylvania Karen Kasmauski, courtesy of the Environmental Integrity Project and International League of Conservation Photographers

Jennifer Baka, a Pennsylvania State University geography professor who studies energy development, estimates that there are 125 compressor stations operating in southwestern Pennsylvania, a quarter of the state’s total. By allowing midstream facilities to be regulated as minor pollution sources, Baka argues, the DEP is ranking production over public health and environmental protection.

“There is a constant pressure to make productive use of our resources and all too often that comes at the expense of environmental protection,” she said. “Profit is what is prioritized, not health, safety, and environment.“

In 2020, Pennsylvania’s then attorney general, Josh Shapiro, called for the aggregation of midstream emissions in a grand jury report that was highly critical of the gas industry and of the state’s management of it. The investigation cited a “systematic failure by government agencies in overseeing the fracking industry,” according to the attorney general’s office, which noted there is a “profound gap between our constitutional mandate for clean air and pure water, and the realities facing Pennsylvanians who live in the shadow of fracking giants and their investors.”

People’s lungs don’t care whether airborne chemicals “came from one large source or many small sources,” said a grand jury report.

The report said that aggregating nearby emissions sources would protect public health. “After all, if people live anywhere nearby, their lungs aren’t going to care whether the chemicals in the air came from one large source or from many small sources all next to each other,” it said. “It is reasonable to expect our regulatory agencies to take that into account.”

Shapiro, who is now the state’s Democratic governor, urged the state legislature — whose Senate is controlled by Republicans — to implement the recommendations of the grand jury report in 2020, but no action has been taken.

As complaints about midstream emissions and other gas industry practices continued to roll in, Shapiro last November published a wide-ranging agreement with CNX, a major natural gas production company, which promised to publicly disclose real-time air-emissions data from sites all along the gas supply chain. Addressing a longstanding complaint by critics of the industry, the company also said it would publish all its drilling and fracking chemicals before they are used.

A natural gas pipeline in Zelienople, Pennsylvania.

A natural gas pipeline in Zelienople, Pennsylvania. Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

In a statement detailing the agreement, CNX said it will monitor the air around its natural gas sites for particulates, benzene, and other air contaminants and will disclose them on its website. But the agreement will do nothing to cut air pollution from natural gas infrastructure because the law doesn’t require aggregation of those emissions, critics say. Nor will the agreement place any new legal or regulatory requirements on the company.

“Monitoring at the well site or compressor station is different from monitoring at the place where human exposure might occur,” said Scott Smith, a spokesman with EHP.

“It is a well-established and proven fact that fracking scars the landscape, pollutes the air and water, degrades the environment, and makes people living near gas wells and other infrastructure sick,” Physicians for Social Responsibility said in its reaction to the CNX agreement.

Despite the new EPA rule, said Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a clean-air advocacy group in Pittsburgh, it’s not clear that midstream emissions will be regulated to the extent they should be.

“Typically these sites do need to get permits, but the permits are not restrictive because typically they don’t go above a large threshold,” he said. “If you look at all the pieces of the infrastructure together, what you have is the equivalent of a large industrial source of toxic air emissions.”