EPA Sets New Regulations to Curb Air Pollution From Fracking
Actual Implementation Deadline Delayed to January 2015
Photo by Rick Hurdle
The US Environmental Protection Agency today announced the first-ever federal standards to reduce air pollution from fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, for oil and natural gas extraction, but delayed the actual implementation of the regulations.
The new rules require natural gas well operators to capture gas that escapes the well during the production process, but giving in to industry pressure, it allows drillers a nearly three-year window to put emissions capture equipment in place. In the meantime, companies can “flare,” or burn, the escaping gases at the wellhead.
The announcement comes close on heels of a series of studies that have shown that methane emissions from fracking are higher than previously assumed, and are a major source of air pollution. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report, for instance, estimates that roughly 4 percent of natural gas from wells leaks into the atmosphere.
The natural gas industry is the largest source of methane emissions in the US — adding up to about 40 percent of the country’s total methane emissions, according to EPA data from May and July 2011. About 20,000 new and existing natural gas wells are fractured or re-fractured in the US each year. Apart from methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas, these wells emit a mix of other volatile organic compounds including benzene and hexane, which can cause cancer, asthma, and other serious health effects. (Read our previous post on this subject, Oil and Gas Drilling Linked to Smog.)
The new regulations, EPA itself admits, rely on widely available technologies and practices already being used at nearly half of all fracking wells in the US. Basically, it involves using mobile, trailer-mounted tanks and equipment to capture the escaping gases and route them back into pipelines. EPA estimates that by using this technology, which would allow them to sell the captured gas, companies could save about $11-$19 million a year. Two states, Colorado and Wyoming, have already made the use of this technology, called “green completion,” mandatory. (Check out this NRDC blog that says leading companies have already been putting this technology to good and profitable use.)
So far, both industry and environmentalists seem pleased with the new ruling. “The stories of families hurt by gas drilling's air pollution were essential to the adoption of these new public health safeguards,” said Bruce Baizel, senior attorney for mining and drilling watchdog group Earthworks. “Hopefully this much-needed first step will soon be expanded to better protect the families that illustrated the need for the new rules in the first place.”
This is a good first step indeed. But it seems to me that there’s no real reason to give drilling companies time until January 2015 to put the "green completion" technology in place and allow them to burn the escaping gases in the meantime. Flaring, has serious environmental and health consequences. (One of the worst examples is in the Niger Delta, where people have long been suffering the consequences of gas flaring. It would have been better if, as had been initially proposed, the regulations went into effect immediately. When so little is still known about the real impacts of fracking on our environment and our health, and when what little we know only points to bad stuff, the precautionary principle should always prevail.