First National Fracking Air Emissions Standard Set by U.S. EPA

WASHINGTON, DC, April 18, 2012 (ENS) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today issued the first federal air rules for natural gas wells that are hydraulically fractured. Operators of new fractured natural gas wells will be required to use technologies to capture natural gas that might otherwise escape into the atmosphere, threatening public health.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking involves the injection of a mixture of chemicals, sand and water under high pressure into rock to release hydrocarbons.

In response to a court deadline in a lawsuit brought by the nonprofit WildEarth Guardians and San Juan Citizens Alliance, the EPA today finalized standards to reduce air pollution by requiring the industry to recover more oil and gas from fractured wells.

Air emissions from fracking operation on Tim and Christine Ruggiero’s property in Texas (Photo by Tim Ruggiero)

“By ensuring the capture of gases that were previously released to pollute our air and threaten our climate, these updated standards will not only protect our health, but also lead to more product for fuel suppliers to bring to market,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said today. “They’re an important step toward tapping future energy supplies without exposing American families and children to dangerous health threats in the air they breathe.”

“The President has been clear that he wants to continue to expand production of important domestic resources like natural gas, and today’s standard supports that goal while making sure these fuels are produced without threatening the health of the American people,” said Jackson.

EPA has updated and broadened two Clean Air Act standards to control gases released during fracking, drilling, pumping, and distribution of natural gas through pipelines to processing facilities.

The final rule does not require new federal permits. Instead, it uses enhanced reporting to strengthen transparency and accountability, and ensure compliance.

An estimated 13,000 new and existing natural gas wells are fractured or re-fractured each year. As those wells are being prepared for production, they emit volatile organic compounds, which contribute to smog formation, and air toxics, including benzene and hexane, which can cause cancer and other serious health effects.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to set new source performance standards for industries that cause, or significantly contribute to, air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare and to review them every eight years. The existing standards were issued in 1985.

The updated “new source performance standards” and “hazardous air pollutant standards” will require better controls on emissions and require the industry to begin capturing methane, the primary constituent of natural gas.

When released into the atmosphere, methane is a potent greenhouse gas, more than 20 times more potent at trapping the Sun’s heat than carbon dioxide, the most abundant greenhouse gas.

Roads and drill pads on Colorado’s Roan Plateau, November 2011 (Photo by Anne Pogoriler / Colorado Environmental Coalition)

“These rules are a major American public health milestone,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Program director. “With our clean air literally being fracked away across the nation, these rules promise to safeguard our communities and keep the dirty process of drilling in check.”

WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance say that in many parts of the western United States, drilling and fracking has pushed ground-level ozone, a key ingredient of smog, above legal health limits. In western Wyoming and northeast Utah, smog levels have been higher than those measured in Los Angeles.

The groups point to western Colorado’s Garfield County, where drilling has increased by more than 132 percent since 2004, bringing 7,000 new natural gas wells to the region.

The state of Colorado says oil and gas operations in the County are responsible for more than 67 percent of all emissions of benzene, a known carcinogen. Studies by the state show that Garfield County residents face an “unacceptable” risk of cancer as a result.

These findings were confirmed by a peer-reviewed study soon to be published in the journal “Science of the Total Environment,” which found that people living near fracking face increased health risks due to benzene and other toxics.

Public demonstrations against fracking have been held across the country. This one at the New York State Capitol in Albany was part of the National Fracking Day of Action, January 23, 2012

Jackson said the updated standards were informed by feedback from a range of stakeholders including the public, public health groups, states and industry. During the nearly 100-day public comment period and three public hearings, the agency received more than 150,000 comments on the proposed rules.

The final standards reduce implementation costs while ensuring they are achievable and can be met by relying on proven, cost-effective technologies as well as processes already in use at about half of all U.S. fractured natural gas wells, Jackson said.

These technologies will not only reduce 95 percent of the harmful emissions from these wells, they will enable companies to collect additional natural gas that can be sold, offsetting the cost of compliance. The EPA estimates that the industry will save from $11 to $19 million each year after the rules are fully implemented in 2015.

Even the regulated industry found something constructive to say about the new standards.

American Petroleum Institute Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs Howard Feldman said today he recognizes improvements in the EPA’s final air rules for that allow for emission reductions while still allowing for production of oil and natural gas.

“The industry has led efforts to reduce emissions by developing new technologies that were adopted in the rule,” said Feldman. “EPA has made some improvements in the rules that allow our companies to continue reducing emissions while producing the oil and natural gas our country needs.”

The final rule establishes a phase-in period that will ensure emissions reduction technology is broadly available.

Natural gas drilling, Dimrock, Pennsylvania, August, 2009 (Photo by Helen Slottje / Shaleshock)

During the first phase, until January 2015, owners and operators must either flare their emissions or use emissions reduction technology called “green completions,” technologies that are already widely deployed at wells. In 2015, all new fractured wells will be required to use green completions.

In a green completion, special equipment separates gas and liquid hydrocarbons from the flowback that comes from the well as it is prepared for production. The gas and hydrocarbons can then be treated and used or sold.

While environmental groups are disappointed that the final rule postpones requiring green completions for two and a half years and does not directly regulate methane, they acknowledge that the rule is a step forward.

“More work needs to be done to ensure people are fully protected from drilling and fracking,” said Nichols. “This is a risky process, we can ill-afford to wait for people to get sick or worse before taking steps to keep harmful air pollution out of the air we breathe.”

Nationwide, the standards will be the first step toward protecting communities in states with oil and gas operations, particularly California, New York, Pennsylvania, Alaska, and Texas, said Nichols. “Because state air quality regulations must at least be as stringent as federal regulations, the final rules will provide a critically important safety net for public health.”

Trip Van Noppen, president of the nonprofit environmental law firm that represented the environmental groups, said, “Left to its own devices, the oil and gas industry has turned the clear skies over Wyoming as smoggy as the car-choked highways of Los Angeles. For decades, industry had a free pollution pass. Thanks to a court victory, that changes today.”

Click here to learn more about specific requirements of the new rules.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.