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Safety, oversight concerns raised as Pa. lawmakers pursue billions for hydrogen hubs

 Harrisburg capitol building Spotlight PA
Tom Gralish
Philadelphia Inquirer
The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.

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HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Senate is weighing a measure that would give state regulators, rather than federal ones, the power to decide where to place large wells that are used to bury carbon dioxide produced by power plants deep underground.

Carbon capture is tied to the burgeoning hydrogen production industry, which is set to receive an enormous influx of cash over the next decade. As a part of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Department of Energy will allocate $7 billion to up to 10 projects to create “hydrogen hubs.”

So far, the federal government has received three applications to build hydrogen hubs in Pennsylvania. State lawmakers and former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf also approved $1 billion in tax incentives last year, aimed at attracting a hub to the state.

But environmental advocates and some lawmakers argue the state Department of Environmental Protection won’t be able to provide adequate oversight of carbon capture and storage, and that communities will be endangered if such projects are allowed without federal oversight.

The state Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee recently passed a bill along party lines that would create a legal and regulatory framework for DEP to control where companies can dig underground injection wells.

These wells are used to store liquified carbon dioxide emissions as a way to prevent greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. Such wells can cause earthquakes and contaminate drinking water.

The agency would be tasked with assessing the terrain on which wells would be constructed, enforcing regulations on the quality of storage and transportation infrastructure, and monitoring public health impacts.

Currently, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has the primary enforcement authority, also called primacy, when it comes to injection wells. This means that projects must be approved by the federal agency and meet its construction, monitoring, and operating standards.

The bill under consideration in Pennsylvania would direct the DEP to assume this authority from the EPA.

Only two states, North Dakota and Wyoming, have this level of authority over injection wells, but other states with large energy industries, such as Louisiana and Texas, are also debating whether they should take on primacy.

State Sen. Gene Yaw (R., Lycoming), chair of his chamber’s environmental committee, said Pennsylvania needs to start pursuing carbon capture, utilization, and storage.

“We need to move. And yes, there will be problems along the way, I’m sure,” Yaw told Spotlight PA. “But doing nothing and sitting back and just sitting here and talking about it — that’s not an option.”

Yaw added that the bill can show the Department of Energy, which is charged with disbursing the billions in federal funds, that Pennsylvania is ready and eager to host a hydrogen hub.

“All we’re worried about is being in the mix that we’re considered as a location. And in order to do that, we have to indicate our interests,” Yaw said.

Democratic committee members said they received the bill less than a day prior to the meeting, and have concerns about the bill’s lack of attention to environmental or community impact.

State Sen. Carolyn Comitta (D., Chester), the minority chair of the committee, said she supports the state having regulatory power over carbon capture but not without proper regulation and oversight, which she thinks this bill lacks. She also said DEP lacks the staff needed to properly oversee injection wells.

“In EPA requirements for tax credits, for projects like hydrogen hubs and [carbon capture and storage], there is a strong component addressing environmental justice, community conversation and input, and this bill does not yet include that,” Comitta said. “I will not support something that’s not being done correctly.”

While many state lawmakers agree that the federal funding would be a major win for Pennsylvania and create thousands of new jobs in the construction and energy industries, they differ over what level of government oversight should be involved in hydrogen production and its related industries.

Earlier this month, concerns from Democratic leadership halted a bill in the state House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee that would have placed greater restrictions on which companies can collect tax credits on hydrogen production.

State Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), who chairs that committee, echoed Comitta. He cited concerns regarding the commonwealth assuming financial liability for the injection wells rather than the companies that dig the wells.

“I am supportive generally of the concept of carbon capture, but it needs to be done the right way,” Vitali said. “The influence of the natural gas industry, the influence of labor is very great in this building. And I’m very concerned that legislation will be rushed through that doesn’t adequately consider environmental impact.”

For Jen Quinn, the legislative director of Pennsylvania’s chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmentalist group, the issue of which agency should oversee the construction of injection wells is not black and white. Under the EPA, the strength of regulations often depends on what administration is in power and the DEP could have a better sense of local issues, she said.

But Quinn questioned whether the state will be able to create environmental regulations that are more stringent than those of the federal government.

“The state can always do something stronger than the federal standard, but it doesn’t mean that we’re in a state that will do that,” Quinn said. “I think we have the opportunity to put good safeguards in place. So it’s sort of like, what are we rushing for? But historically, that’s what we do.”

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