A stake marks a natural gas pipeline in Leesburg, Virginia. Credit: Jim Pierobon / Southeast Energy News

A task force is expected to propose new regulations to limit leaks from landfills and natural gas infrastructure.

An Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station before Virginia regulators could be the first to face tougher standards amid heightened scrutiny of methane leaks in the state.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s draft permit for a compressor station in Buckingham County includes a requirement for inclusion of a vent gas reduction system the agency claims will cut methane emissions by more than 99 percent due to reduced venting of natural gas.

If approved by the State Air Pollution Control Board, this would mark the first time the department has issued a permit requiring the methane-reduction technology. It looks to be a sign of more regulation to come.

As high-profile battles over the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines rage, Virginia has quietly moved to begin regulating greenhouse gases — including methane emissions — more tightly.

In September, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced a series of initiatives to combat climate change, including the creation of a task force that will look at methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure and landfills and likely recommend new state regulations.

The task force is forming as Northam tries to balance demands from Dominion Energy, a political powerhouse in terms of campaign finance and lobbying, and environmentalists in his own Democratic Party — some of whom have criticized him for not taking a firm stand against the pipelines.

A natural gas utility cover in Virginia.

Once accepted and even celebrated as a “bridge fuel” that burns cleaner than coal, natural gas has lost its appeal among climate activists in part due to concerns about methane. Pipeline opponents now argue that whatever advantage gas may have over coal in power production is more than offset by methane emissions from fracking and the transportation of natural gas.

“Greenhouse gas emission reductions in Virginia have been driven largely by the transition from coal to gas, but to further that transition and continue reducing carbon in the atmosphere, we have to figure out how to limit and capture methane emissions,” said DEQ Chief Deputy Chris Bast.

Clean energy advocacy groups like the Chesapeake Climate Action Network cautiously support the move to tighten greenhouse gas restrictions even as they oppose the continued growth of natural gas infrastructure.

The group’s Virginia director, Harrison Wallace, wrote that while it’s good the department is requiring stricter emissions standards on projects like the Buckingham County compressor station, the bigger problem is ongoing construction of “huge new sources” of methane like the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

“When it comes to regulating methane, Gov. Northam has a big pipeline problem,” Wallace said. “The Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline would result in the greenhouse gas equivalent of 45 new coal-fired power plants. We'll wait and see what comes from the new DEQ task force, but the real and immediate issues at hand are that Virginia's fracked-gas pipelines are a climate disaster.”

Related: Facing a second controversial gas pipeline, North Carolina takes a new tack

Virginia’s ability to regulate methane is somewhat restricted by a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that in part said greenhouse gases shouldn’t be considered standalone pollutants for the purposes of determining whether a source requires a restrictive “major source” permit, but that the permit can limit them if there’s another pollutant present. Based on that ruling, the Virginia DEQ has begun to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from large projects where other pollutants are present.

The vent gas reduction system in the department’s draft permit for the Buckingham County compressor station, for example, is required to capture volatile organic compounds; the word “methane” never appears in the permit. However, a fact sheet on the technology produced for the Environmental Protection Agency specifically cites reductions in methane emissions as a benefit.

“This is technology that’s been used in the industry, but we’ve never been able to identify where it’s been required in a permit,” said Tamera Thompson, who manages DEQ’s Office of Air Permit Programs. “As far as we’re aware, this is the only permit that’s ever required this system be used. That’s kind of surprising. In addition to the fact it controls methane emissions, it’s also good for the industry because they don’t lose as much gas. It’s almost a win-win for the industry and the environment.”

Approval for the permit has twice been postponed by the State Air Pollution Control Board, most recently in December. Dominion’s plans for the compressor station in Union Hill, a historic African American community founded by former slaves, has been fiercely opposed by local residents and anti-pipeline activists. Northam further stoked controversy in November by removing two board members who had expressed concerns about the compressor station and its location.

Although the fate of the draft permit remains uncertain, its requirement of methane-capture technology serves as a starting point for the DEQ task force, which may well recommend taking that regulation a step farther.

Virginia is taking a hard look at new regulations even as President Donald Trump’s EPA is moving to weaken federal environmental regulations that aim to limit pollution from fossil fuels. Industry voices claim that methane emissions will decline despite the weakened rules, but organizations like the Sierra Club denounced the regulatory rollbacks as “assaults on our climate and our children’s health.”

Some fossil fuel companies, like Shell, BP and ExxonMobil, have recently announced plans to maintain or reduce methane emissions in coming years. ExxonMobil has requested the EPA regulate emissions from all new oil and natural gas wells; Amy Harder at Axios suggested that’s because the company is under pressure to respond to climate change, and because it has the resources to invest in pollution control equipment that would put it at a competitive advantage over smaller companies if methane is more tightly regulated.

Virginia’s new task force will begin its work by trying to determine the scope of the methane leakage problem.

“Depending on who you talk to, there’s a lot of methane coming out or barely any,” Thompson said. “One thing we want to get educated on from stakeholders is how much methane is actually coming out of the pipelines themselves. What kind of problem are we really looking at? Once we have a better idea of what kind of problem this is, we’ll know better how to approach it.”

The DEQ published notice of the task force’s formation and accepted applications for it in December. Karen Sabasteanski, the department’s environmental program planner, said the group would likely begin its work this spring after the General Assembly concludes its legislative session. She said the task force may eventually recommend new methane regulations, but not necessarily. If it chooses to do so, it will issue an intent of regulatory action.

“Once we issue notice, that starts a clock with certain process and marks we want to hit,” Sabasteanski said. “We won’t issue the notice until we know what we want to do. We want to put in the work up front with the ad hoc group before we flip that switch and get the clock started.”

Bast, the department’s chief deputy, said that new regulations are the likely result from the task force.

“That’s our objective,” Bast said. “The uncertainty is what they’re going to look like, and the scope of what’s covered.”

The task force will begin meeting in early 2019.

Mason has worked as a journalist since 2001, covering Appalachian communities and the issues that affect them. He compiles the Southeast Energy News digest. Mason previously worked as a wildlife biologist before moving into journalism by freelancing at Coast Weekly in Monterey, California, before taking an internship in 2001 at High Country News. He wrote for the Enterprise Mountaineer in western North Carolina and the Roanoke Times in western Virginia before going freelance in 2012. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, WVPB’s Inside Appalachia and elsewhere. Mason was born and raised in Clifton Forge, Virginia, and now lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia.