Thursday, April 19, 2012

EPA sets rules to curb air pollution at gas fracking wells

**Updated at 4:50 p.m.**

The Obama administration yesterday set the first-ever national standards to control air pollution from gas wells that are drilled using a method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but not without making concessions to the oil and gas industry, the Associated Press reported.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) updated its New Source Performance Standards and National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants to include emissions from oil and gas production. The new standards will reduce the amount of methane, volatile organic compounds, and other toxic emissions coming from fracking operations.

President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address strongly backed natural gas drilling as a clean energy source, and recently announced an executive order calling for coordination of federal regulation to ease burdens on producers. But he has come under criticism by the industry and Republicans for policies they say discourage energy development.

Top EPA officials said yesterday that the new regulations would ensure pollution is controlled without slowing natural gas production.

"By ensuring the capture of gases that were previously released to pollute our air and threaten our climate, these updated standards will protect our health, but also lead to more product for fuel suppliers to bring to market," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in a statement.

Much of the air pollution from fracked gas wells is vented when the well transitions from drilling to actual production, a three- to 10-day process which is referred to as "completion." An earlier version of the rule limiting air pollution from gas wells would have required companies to install pollution-reducing equipment immediately after the rule was finalized.

Drillers now will be given more than two years to employ technology to reduce emissions of smog- and soot-forming pollutants during that stage. The Environmental Protection Agency will require drillers to burn off gas in the meantime, an alternative that can release smog-forming nitrogen oxides, but will still slash overall emissions.

Industry groups had pushed hard for the delay, saying the equipment to reduce pollution at the wellhead during completion was not readily available. About 25,000 wells a year are being fracked, a process where water, chemicals and sand are injected at high pressure underground to release trapped natural gas.

Besides the new standards for oil and gas wells, the EPA also on Wednesday updated existing rules for natural gas processing plants, storage tanks and transmission lines that will reduce amounts of cancer-causing air pollution, such as benzene, and also reduce methane — the main ingredient in natural gas, but also one of the most potent global warming gases.

There were other changes made since the EPA proposed the rule last July under a court order that stemmed from a lawsuit brought by environmental groups.

Wells drilled in low-pressure areas, such as coal-bed methane reserves, would be exempt because they release less pollution during completion. And companies that choose to re-fracture wells using the pollution-reducing equipment prior to the January 2015 deadline would not be covered by other parts of the regulation.

Since companies could capture the natural gas and sell it, the EPA estimates that they would save about $11-$19 million a year starting in 2015.

The American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, said that much of the industry was already doing that.

"We don't need (the EPA) to come and tell our members we will save you money," said Howard Feldman, the institute's director of regulatory and scientific affairs. "Their business is natural gas. They get it that they are trying to capture as much gas as they can."

The reaction from environmental groups was mixed on Wednesday, in large part to the two-year delay on requiring companies to perform so-called green completions.

In New Jersey, Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittle called the rules “a good first step in protecting communities from the dangers of fracking but we still need to regulate the impacts to water and  get rid of the ‘Halliburton loophole’ that allows the gas industry to avoid our most important federal environmental laws.  Until they regulate the impact fracking has on our water quality, groundwater and waterways the drilling technique will never be safe.”  

In Pennsylvania, the gas industry's Marcellus Shale Coalition President Kathryn Klaber called the regulations "mostly workable."

"Our industry continues to leverage many recent technological advancements on an increasingly broader scale in an effort to further heighten and protect environmental quality," Klaber said in a statement.

In a statement released Wednesday night, Pennsylvania DEP Secretary Mike Krancer said: "DEP is currently reviewing EPA's final rule concerning emissions related to natural gas exploration and development."

He said DEP is in the midst of a public comment period on proposed revisions to the state's natural gas operations regulations.

"We look forward to analyzing the comments we receive along with the EPA's rule and finalizing our general permit that will allow for the continued responsible development of natural gas," Krancer said.

Allegheny County Health Department's air program manager Jim Thompson said the rules could help people living near well sites by cutting their exposure to volatile organic compounds, which can cause cancer or aggravate asthma.

The region's bigger problem is ozone, which the EPA did little to address, he said. Regulators should enforce similar rules, requiring the use of technology to cut ozone-causing pollutants from other gas industry sites, especially compressor stations, Thompson said.

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