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EPA to Increase Air Pollution Standards: Will Limit Emissions from Fracking

August 3, 2011

On July 28th the EPA proposed a new set of EPA air quality regulations that would reduce air pollution from the natural gas and oil industries. The new regulations will reduce emissions of smog-forming (and cancer causing) Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). This would mark the first federal air quality regulations for natural gas wells that are hydraulically fractured and require wells to capture 95% of the VOCs that they emit, which is a good thing since the industry is the largest industrial source of VOCs in America. In 2008 the EPA estimated that the oil and gas industry were emitting 2.2 million tons of VOCs per year.

Propublica produced an excellent overview of the new regulations, including a comment from EPA head Lisa Jackson that “people’s health will be affected” by air pollution from gas drilling.  Propublica found the regulations will not protect human health any time soon because although they reduce smog-forming VOCs, they fail to address ground-level ozone from fracking operations; they leave the great majority of climate-damaging methane emissions from gas drilling untouched; and they won’t take effect until February 2012 at the earliest, with industry chomping at the bit to further delay implementation.

According to Propublica, it was likely not only the WildEarth Guardians lawsuit that sparked EPA to do its job, but also pressure created by the growing public understanding of the harm fracking causes to human health.  Read the full Propublica story here.

Shortcomings aside, the EPA’s proposed regulations are absolutely a strong step forward. The proposal also reviews four existing rules for the oil and gas industry; a new source performance standard for VOCs; a new source performance standard for sulfur dioxide; an air toxics standard for oil and natural gas production; and an air toxics standard for natural gas transmission and storage.

At the end of the day, the proposed rules could drastically change industry standards to:

  • reduce total VOC emissions by 540,000 tons, an industry reduction of 25%
  • reduce methane emissions by 3.4 million tons, a reduction of 26%
  • reduce toxic air pollutants, such as Benzene, a known carcinogen, by 38,000 tons, a reduction of 30%

The new regulations would require the industry to capture natural gas that is typically released into the air from wells and bring it to the market, available for sale. An EPA analysis suggests that compliance with the new regulations would ultimately save the industry around $29 million within the first year. Nevertheless, Kathryn Klaber, President and Executive Director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, complained that the EPA regulations would “undercut” the production of shale gas, which she champions as “critical to strengthening our nation’s air quality.”  The Marcellus Shale Coalition continues to spin the myth of the clean blue flame, despite five studies which have debunked that myth, which are summarized here.  Klaber went on to state that the EPA regulations are “p0tentially unworkable” and implied that they are unnecessary because, according to her, “Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection studies have determined that Marcellus activities do not present any air-related health issues.”

Perhaps Klaber accidentally left out the word “major,” as PA DEP did do a little, tiny, five-week study which found that benzene, toluene, acetone, and 14 other harmful toxics were being emitted by gas processing facilities.  PA DEP nonetheless decided to ignore complaints from residents experiencing headaches, sore throats, nosebleeds, and other symptoms, concluding there is no “major health risk” from the gas drilling operations.  However even PA DEP acknowledged that its small study should not be considered “comprehensive” or conclusive, contrary to Klaber’s claim.

A recent study released in July by the Global Community Monitor, which launched a community-based pilot environmental monitoring program to measure air pollution from natural gas facilities in response to complaints about odor and health found that there were alarming levels of toxics in the air:

“A total of 22 toxic chemicals were detected in the nine air samples, including four known carcinogens, toxins known to damage the nervous system, and respiratory irritants.  The levels detected were in many cases significantly higher than what is considered safe by state and federal agencies. The levels of chemicals, including benzene and acrylonitrile, ranged from three to 3,000 times higher than levels established to estimate increased risk of serious health effects and cancer based on long-term exposure.”

US Representatives Jared Polis of Colorado and Maurice Hinchey of New York, who are co-sponsors of the BREATHE Act, which would remove some of the natural gas industry exemptions from the Clean Air Act, praise the new regulatory measures. Jared Polis states:

 “Until we can close industry exemptions and loopholes within the law, this overdue update to our clean air laws is welcome and desperately needed.”

Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation states

“Reducing these emissions will help cut toxic pollution that can increase cancer risks and smog that can cause asthma attacks and premature death — all while giving these operators additional product to bring to market.”

These new regulations stem from a federal lawsuit brought forth by two environmental groups, Wild Earth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance. The EPA will now take public comment and hold a hearing in Denver before taking final action by Feb. 28th of 2012.  Call your Representatives today and tell them you support the new EPA air pollution regulations for the oil and gas industry!

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