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Pennsylvania Narrows Air Permit Exemption for Unconventional Well Sites

On August 8, 2013, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) announced significant changes to its air permitting policy regarding unconventional gas well sites.  Pursuant to the state Air Pollution Control Act, PADEP may identify sources or categories of sources that are exempt from plan approval (i.e., source construction or modification permit) requirements.  Since 1996, PADEP offered a broad “automatic” exemption for oil and gas exploration and production facilities and operations.  This exemption was narrowed considerably this week when PADEP published a revised version of its “Air Quality Permit Exemption List.”

Specifically, PADEP has revised the exemptions for  Category No. 33, pertaining to compressed natural gas fueling, and Category No. 38, pertaining to oil and gas exploration, development, production facilities and associated equipment and operation.  The most notable change is with respect to Category No. 38: PADEP will now require unconventional operators to satisfy criteria stricter than federal air regulations – namely 40 CFR 60 Subpart OOOO, issued by U.S. EPA last year and currently being revised – in order to qualify for the plan approval exemption.  For example, the operator will need to implement a leak detection and repair (LDAR) program across the entire well pad and facility, although the federal regulations require LDAR for storage vessels only.

Unconventional operators have a choice between demonstrating satisfaction of the stringent criteria in exemption Category No. 38 or seeking a plan approval from PADEP.  Conventional well operations remain broadly exempt from the plan approval requirement.  For purposes of the Air Quality Permit Exemption List, PADEP defines a conventional well as any well that does not meet the statutory definition of “unconventional well” in Act 13 of 2012.  Even when a well site is exempt from the requirement to obtain a plan approval, it is still subject to all other applicable air quality regulations, such as the reporting and recordkeeping requirements of 40 CFR 60 Subpart OOOO.

PADEP received 651 comments on the revisions to its Air Quality Permit Exemption List.  A comment response document is available.