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EPA Starts Clean Up of "Fracking" Air Pollution

Meleah Geertsma

Posted April 18, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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By issuing standards today to control the harmful stew of air pollution from the oil and gas industry, the Environmental Protection Agency took an important step towards making good on President Obama’s State of the Union pledge to clean-up natural gas production – in particular hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — to protect public health.  Largely rejecting a campaign by the American Petroleum Institute for loopholes that you could drive a drilling rig through, the final standards retain the vast majority of the core pollution control requirements for new and modified facilities that EPA proposed last year.  With these measures the agency is greatly improving control of the trio of dangerous air pollutants — cancer-causing benzene, smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and methane, a potent greenhouse gas — coming from this booming industry.

The standards fall under two Clean Air Act programs, New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) and National Emission Standards for Hazardous Pollutants (NESHAPs).  EPA’s NSPS pollution standards are based on proven technologies that save industry money, as described in a recent NRDC report.  The most important measure will curb the whoosh of dangerous pollution from newly fracked or refracked wells, using truck-mounted tanks to capture millions of tons of valuable gases that can be sold at a profit instead of leaked into the air.  Using this “green completion” equipment will achieve most of the pollution reductions achieved by the standards.  Other required technologies will prevent leakage of hundreds of thousands of tons of pollution from other sources on the well pad, and from associated storage tanks and processing plants.  As the NRDC report explains, these relatively inexpensive technologies pay for themselves because they capture or prevent leakage of gases that operators can resell.  In fact, they pay for themselves in as little as three months.   

The final standards require green completions on all newly fracked and refracked wells (with the exceptions of so-called “wildcat” or “delineation” wells that are not near pipeline infrastructure for routing captured gases, and low pressure wells).  EPA fended off a concerted attack by API and others who attempted, in the final few weeks, to open a giant loophole for wells based on their supposedly low concentrations of VOCs.  But despite industry’s attempts to paint them as trivial, these wells are huge sources of air pollution.  The exemption would have swallowed the rule, leaving the pollution from most wells and other emission points uncontrolled.

Unfortunately, the standards allow until January 2015 to fully comply with green completion requirements.  During the next two-and-a-half years, new and refracked wells will have to flare off the escaping pollution, but flaring will still result in huge amounts of pollution and unnecessarily wastes valuable natural gas.  The delay responds to API claims that they don’t currently have enough of the truck-mounted equipment needed to service every fracked well and building the equipment will take many years.  But this is not rocket science.  As we’ve shown here and here, the natural gas industry has plenty of capacity and capability to weld the needed tanks and pipes and mount them on trucks and trailers.

Communities living near existing and new well fields shouldn’t have to wait more than two more years for full safeguards.  Thankfully, the standards do include incentives for early adoption of green completions -- operators who choose to use this technology before January 2015 will be able to avoid their wells being categorized as “modifications” and thus avoid certain state permitting requirements that go along with that designation. 

Furthermore, we know that there are good actors out in the field.  Take Southwestern Energy Co., for example, a natural gas drilling and producing company operating Arkansas and Pennsylvania, which already practices green completions at no extra cost.  Devon Energy Corp., with operations in Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico and other states, has also already adopted green completions.  

So NRDC issues a challenge to the operators and equipment manufacturers:  Get rolling on green completions now.  Create jobs starting today by manufacturing the equipment and training folks to use it.  Show communities nationwide that you care about their well-being.  Do your best to ensure that your product doesn’t give them cancer or asthma attacks or raise the global temperature by getting to universal green completions before the standards require them. 

If you want to claim the title of the “cleaner” fossil fuel, prove it.

As for EPA, this first step is an important one, but it leaves literally millions of tons of pollution from this industry uncontrolled, still harming communities and our planet.  Congress entrusted EPA with safeguarding those communities, and we believe the agency should finish its job as quickly as possible.

In particular, EPA’s NESHAP standards fail to adequately address health effects from air toxics emitted by the industry.  EPA must set strong standards to cut pollution around existing facilities to protect communities from cancer, neurological problems, and other health ailments.  EPA’s evaluation of health risks and available technology for existing facilities is incomplete and leaves communities at risk.  EPA must move quickly to get complete, comprehensive, and up-to-date data on toxic air pollution from the industry and best practices for pollution control, in order to ensure equal protection to all families near these facilities.  In addition, we are disappointed that EPA failed to finalize some of its proposed standards to control air toxics, as you can read about here.

On the NSPS side, EPA must set direct standards for methane, a very potent greenhouse gas that EPA has determined endangers the public health and welfare.  The agency also must issue guidelines for controlling existing sources in the sector that are not addressed by yesterday’s standards, and which currently account for the bulk of the pollution from this industry.  In addition, we are disappointed that EPA went back on its proposal to control pollution downstream of the point where gas enters the transmission pipeline.  As we commented to the agency, this part of the sector generates significant pollution that can be controlled at a reasonable cost.  Finally, the standards omit any controls for oil well completions, including for oil wells that are hydraulically fractured. 

The oil and gas sector, in particular fracking, produces a host of air and water contaminants along with valuable fuel.  Millions of Americans are exposed, and national standards like these set an important baseline to protect their health and their surroundings.  The air standards are an important start on delivering the pollution safeguards that communities deserve, but there’s more to be done. 

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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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