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EPA issues groundbreaking new proposal to rein in toxic oil and gas air pollution

Amy Mall

Posted July 29, 2011 in Health and the Environment

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Yesterday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a groundbreaking proposal that will rein in some of the most toxic air pollutants being spewed into communities by the oil and gas industry.  Real people are suffering; we’ve blogged before about the alarming data coming from around the country--from Los Angeles to Texas, to the Rocky Mountain states, and the East—revealing levels of dangerous air emissions.  Our 2007 report, Drilling Down, pointed out that the oil and gas industry is allowed to pollute the air more than other industries because it enjoys a gaping loophole in the Clean Air Act.

The pollutants emitted by this industry include carcinogens, like benzene and formaldehyde. They also include toxins known to cause serious neurological damage, like hydrogen sulfide and toluene. Other symptoms caused by pollutants like acetone and xylene are irritation to the nose, throat and eye, and breathing problems.

Families across the country living near oil and gas operations--including both adults and children--have reported very serious health symptoms, including severe nosebleeds, difficulty walking and speaking, rashes, severe headaches, dizziness, and difficulty breathing.  The families and/or their physicians believe these symptoms are linked to toxic air pollutants from the nearby oil and gas facilities, and in some cases physicians have ordered families to evacuate their homes (which is challenging if no one will buy the home).

Dangerous oil and gas pollutants can be emitted into the air in various ways-–from an oil or gas well, from the many pieces of equipment on a wellpad, from a pipeline or compressor station, or processing facilities. Due to historical laws governing oil and gas rights, these facilities may be located in backyards or schoolyards, sometimes as close as 150 feet, or less, to someone’s bedroom window. Unlike other chemical facilities and toxic waste sites, oil and gas production operations are not limited to areas zoned for industrial activity. But not only families in the 30+ states of the oil patch or gas patch will breathe easier; oil and gas facilities like compressor stations and processing plants are located in every state and their emissions can contribute to regional air quality problems like smog.

In addition, the oil and gas sector is one of the largest industrial sources of greenhouse gases–-in this case methane, a highly potent global warming pollutant. Current estimates of sector emissions rank the industry at the top of the list, along with power plants, oil refineries and cement plants. Even though methane capture makes these companies money, many of them still release huge amounts of methane directly to the atmosphere from wells during drilling and fracking, from wellpad equipment, and via leaks throughout their systems--presumably because they can make more money faster by drilling for more oil and gas without these controls.

The EPA published more than 800 pages of information yesterday, and our lawyers and scientists will be reviewing it all closely in the weeks to come. This blog post will provide an initial brief summary. Here’s some of what the EPA has to say about all this:

  • There are several sources of oil and gas air pollution that are not regulated at all at the federal level, including hydraulic fracturing.
  • Hydraulic fracturing of one well leads to emissions of approximately 23 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—roughly 200 times more than if the well was not hydraulically fractured.  VOCs can be highly toxic and also contribute to regional air quality problems like smog. Nearly 95% of these emissions could be captured using existing technology. 
  • The oil and gas industry is a significant source of VOCs, yet rules to limit these emissions have not been updated since 1985. 
  • The pollutants from the oil and gas industry are linked to increases in cancer, asthma, premature death, hospital admissions and emergency room visits. In addition to VOCs, oil and gas pollutants include nitrogen oxide (NOx), hydrogen suflide, and other carcinogens, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). 
  • Current rules allow unacceptable cancer risks.
  • While these new rules do not target greenhouse gas reductions, an indirect effect of these rules on greenhouse gases will be the equivalent of taking approximately 11 million typical passenger cars off the road.

 

New rules with tighter emissions controls are a win-win for both public health and industry. Industry will actually make money when it installs new air control equipment, because it will capture more of its product that can be sold and would otherwise escape into the atmosphere.  Under the EPA proposal, companies will make $29 million each year.

EPA is proposing four new rules for the oil and gas industry that will reduce total VOC emissions by 25%, some toxic air pollutants by almost 30%, and greenhouse gases by about by 25% (though the rules do not directly control methane, it will be reduced as a “co-benefit” of the controls because methane is released along with VOCs). We think the EPA could have, and should have, gone farther to protect public health from existing facilities, and as we digest the materials we’ll be able to provide more details.

But what EPA has proposed is groundbreaking because it will help bring the oil and gas industry up to 21st century standards for clean air and healthy families. Notably, these standards will save the industry money. The oil and gas industry’s power and influence in Washington has meant that important environmental protections have not been updated in decades and the industry has not been cleaned up. Families across the country have been crying out for assistance, but have had to resort to private lawsuits to protect their health and their children. Brava to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and the dedicated staff at EPA who heard these cries, looked at the cold, hard facts, and realized that this industry pollutes too much, current technology can clean up some of its dirty mess, and it can afford to do better by the people who have to live near its toxic facilities.

The EPA will be accepting public comment on these new proposed rules for the next two months, and NRDC will be letting you know how you can submit your own comment letter to the EPA. The EPA will also be holding public hearings in Denver, Pittsburgh, and Dallas. The EPA will be considering all of the comments, and then issue a final rule by the end of February, 2012.

The industry’s response to this long-awaited update (EPA standards were already overdue by nearly two decades in some cases) is to complain that it needs until August of next year--2012--to review the proposed rules. The oil and gas industry has been exposing families across the nation to toxic air pollutants for decades—even though it had the technology to operate in much cleaner and safer ways and would make money by doing so. We know it can easily and affordably reduce its air pollution with readily available technology; it does not need or deserve any extra time to continue harming American families.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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