This is part of a Moms Clean Air Force series about the health impacts of methane:
Karen Knutson, Indiana Township, Pennsylvania
Every year, Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry vents and leaks more than 1.1 million tons of methane—a potent greenhouse gas. Cutting methane pollution from oil and gas operations is the quickest, most cost-effective way to reduce climate-warming pollution and protect the health and well-being of families.
When Karen Knutson worked as a museum educator at the University of Pittsburgh, she traveled all around Pennsylvania to help museums design their exhibits and programs. She found the mountains, lakes, and forests “magical” but was saddened to see how much state land was being used for oil and gas wells, transmission pipelines, and other infrastructure for the industry.
Fracking came to Karen’s community after the Indiana Township Board of Supervisors approved eight oil and gas wells over the winter holidays in 2015—without notice to their constituents.
The oil and gas pad is about four miles from Karen’s house and small farm, where she grows her own vegetables and has goats and chickens. Karen was especially concerned about the water source because her family relies on well water.
“We live in a rural area. You don’t necessarily know what your neighbors’ feelings about the environment are going to be. It was really refreshing to see everyone coming together and working for a new, more protective oil and gas ordinance. Everyone brought different skills to the table.
“We had health professionals who found the latest medical research about the harmful effects of living near oil and gas operations. We had some people who were good at researching other communities’ ordinances. My own interest was in land use, knowing that those wells could be abandoned someday, and that we were squandering and polluting the land. We divided up the labor and got advice from a lawyer about how to make a presentation to the Board.”
After years of working with organizations like Moms Clean Air Force, Karen and other volunteers persuaded her municipality to adopt a new oil and gas ordinance with the features they had found in their research of best practices. The new ordinance reduces the land areas available for oil and gas development to just 14%—down from the 95% that was allowed by the previous ordinance. These kinds of industrial developments should not be permitted in residential districts.
When Karen hikes along the Rachel Carson Trail in Western Pennsylvania, she sees all sorts of abandoned coal mines, old oil and gas wells, some still functioning shallow gas wells in the area. One small well is located down the street from her house. Another old well near a neighbor’s backyard exploded and killed a maintenance worker.
“These old wells are rusty, but they are still running. They’re close to people’s houses. I’m concerned about what might be leaking and contributing to climate change.”
Knowing that methane is a significant contributor to climate change, Karen and other moms are pressing EPA for a strong rule to limit methane emissions from new and existing gas wells. That means the rule must include frequent inspections of small wells because they are more prone to have equipment that leaks methane like the ones near Karen’s home. A study by the Environmental Defense Fund in 2022 found that these small oil and gas wells are responsible for half of the methane emitted from all well sites in the US, even though they account for only 6% of the nation’s oil and gas production.
Karen is a firm believer in having everyday conversations about climate change and air pollution with the people she meets, like the neighbor at the park or the man who delivers hay to her farm.
“Protesting, providing testimony to governmental bodies, and organizing are all essential, but having conversations with folks who aren’t heavily involved is also key to making change.”