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Increasing oil and gas well inspections is a crucial step toward addressing climate change

With public schools implementing early dismissals during a recent heat wave that included record temperatures, with city residents bracing for the next occurrence of an extreme storm like Hurricane Ida, and with worsening air quality in Philadelphia overall, climate change and pollution remain a growing threat to the region.

The Biden administration’s recommitment to meeting the climate goals under the Paris Agreement was a welcome start to making significant progress in regulating emissions from oil and gas drilling. But time is wasting, and more must be done to slow the toll of global warming. One place to start is with increased regulation of small oil wells that contribute a significant amount of greenhouse gasses.

Pennsylvania is home to thousands of old, abandoned and leaking oil and gas wells. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates the 2 million abandoned wells nationwide are a top source of air and water pollution.

Last fall, the EPA proposed new regulations to reduce methane and other pollutants from oil and gas operations. While this proposal is a critical first step, it ignores the more than half-million small or marginal oil wells in the country, allowing for a significant amount of emissions to continue. This summer, the EPA hopes to pass supplemental regulations adding inspections at these wells.

Beyond simply preventing harmful emissions of methane and carbon, cutting down on leaks can help improve air quality in a state with higher rates of asthma than the national average. The regulations are especially targeted at leaks of methane, which accounts for more than a quarter of global greenhouse gas and is 80 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.

Oil industry advocates hope to avoid stringent checks at these wells, claiming the wells are mostly owned by small businesses that provide lots of jobs but cannot afford tougher regulations. But research shows most marginal wells are owned by large companies.

While the output of individual wells across the nation might be marginal — less than 15 barrels a day on average — the total emissions is not. Research from the Environmental Defense Fund found that the combined leaks from these wells represented roughly half of the total leaked by the entire drilling industry. An opportunity to significantly curb emissions without impacting most of the nation’s oil supply makes these new regulations a necessary choice.

To be sure, President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure measure that was passed earlier this year set aside $1.15 billion for states to cap abandoned oil and gas wells, which will create jobs and help combat climate change.

Since 2018, the United States has been the world’s top producer of fossil fuels. That makes adding regular inspections of small, marginal wells an urgent priority.

With extreme weather events and other symptoms of climate change accelerating, there is no time to waste. The nation’s lawmakers, business leaders, environmental officials, and others must take substantive steps to reduce methane pollution now.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board

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