Gov. Wolf speaks at history center after signing new emission standards.

On Tuesday morning, the main hall of the Senator John Heinz History Center was the launchpad for several environmental initiatives from both the public and the private sector.

Peoples Gas announced a commitment to cut their methane emissions in a collaboration with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) by using state-of-the-art detection systems designed by Google and the University of Colorado to monitor their local gas lines for leaks. The system works by using laser monitors mounted on Peoples Gas service vehicles.

While the utility company has been experimenting with the technology for several years, on Tuesday, Peoples firmly committed to using the system to cut their emissions by 50% in its Pittsburgh service territory.

“The real benefits are that we can now quantify and differentiate gas leaks, ones that have a small amount of gas and ones that have more meaningful gas coming out of it,” said Morgan O’Brien, CEO of Peoples Natural Gas. “So when it comes to fixing and replacing a pipe, we can prioritize.

“The simple math is, in 2019 by fixing 20% of those larger leaks in the city of Pittsburgh we can reduce methane by 50% of what it is today,” O’Brien added.

Only moments before their announcement on the second floor of the History Center, Governor Tom Wolf signed an executive order calling for the state to move toward a 26 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2025, and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

According to the order, this will be accomplished in the short-term through a wide variety of state initiatives, such as moving the state’s vehicle fleet to electric power and emphasizing green design for all new construction and renovation projects.

The order also creates a new oversight panel to encourage energy efficiency and sustainability at all levels of state government in the long-term. Dubbed the GreenGov Council, the panel will be co-chaired by the secretaries of the Departments of General Services, Environmental Protection and Conservation and Natural Resources.

While environmental groups have had their differences with Governor Wolf, many lauded the announcement.

“This is an historic step forward that puts Pennsylvania’s aspirations in line with what was negotiated under the Paris Agreement and sends a strong message to Pennsylvanians, the Trump administration and the rest of the United States that Pennsylvania is committed to tackling climate change and setting a new path for how the Commonwealth produces and consumes energy,” said PennFuture President and CEO Jacquelyn Bonomo.

Representatives from Peoples Gas and the EDF stood with Wolf and other local political leaders at a press conference after the signing, where the governor emphasized that his administration’s focus on curbing emissions would go hand-in-hand with a broader expansion of the fracking and natural gas industry across the state.

As County Executive Rich Fitzgerald noted during the conference, methane has around 80 times more warming power than carbon dioxide, and emissions from the natural gas industry are a significant driver of some of the worst effects of climate change the region has seen over the last year.

Fitzgerald says these steep environmental costs only underscored the need for tighter regulations and innovative approaches like the partnership between Peoples and the EDF.

Energy “is an important industry in this region,” said the County Executive. “It always has been and it always will be.”

The governor has come under fire by some for his support of expanding the state’s network of natural gas pipelines. Speaking on Tuesday morning, he called the many still-untapped reserves of natural gas around Western Pennsylvania “a valuable product,” but affirmed that it would be pumped with strict government oversight from his administration.

“Protecting our environment and growing our economy are not contradictory goals,” he said.

Speaking to the media after the conference, Wolf emphasized that even with the expansion of the industry, he views natural gas as only a stepping stone on the path towards a totally renewable future.

“Whether anybody likes it or not, we’re heading to a solar and wind future,” said Governor Wolf. “The question is, how do we manage the transition?”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.