EPA Proposes Long Overdue Air Pollution Standards for Oil and Gas

New Rules Leave Out Some Key Pollution Issues Related to the Industry

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new air rules for oil and gas operations in an effort to reduce smog and toxic airborne pollution linked to oil and gas production, including the first-ever federal air rules for wells that are hydraulically fractured. These cost-effective regulations, including the use of “green completions,” will reduce air pollution caused by the drilling, processing and transmission of oil and gas while saving the industry nearly 30 million dollars per year.

Photo by Rick HurdleEPA’s new standards do not directly target pollution from methane, a potent
greenhouse gas.

The EPA’s proposed plan will limit air emissions of benzene and other toxic chemicals as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – smog-forming pollutants which can cause asthma and premature death. Air toxics, including benzene, can cause cancer and other serious health problems. Communities across the country have long been experiencing significant health impacts from air pollution related to oil and gas production. In some parts of Wyoming, ozone pollution on some days has exceeded what Los Angeles experiences on its worst smog days.

The proposed rules will result in an industry-wide reduction of 25% of VOCs and a reduction of nearly 30% of airborne toxic pollution. Unfortunately, the rules do not directly target pollution from methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has been linked to climate change. Though by requiring the reduction of VOCs, these new standards will decrease methane emissions from oil and gas production by 26%.

The new standards proposed by EPA are the product of a lawsuit filed by the San Juan Citizens Alliance and WildEarth Guardians to compel the EPA to update long overdue air standards for the oil and gas industry. Though most standards under the Clean Air Act are supposed to be reviewed every 8 years, the oil and gas industry has been operating under some rules that were put in place over ten years ago, and more than 25 years ago for the important New Source Performance Standards that require the industry to use the latest technology to reduce any pollutants that endanger public health and welfare.

Despite the fact that this proposal is based on proven technology and best practices that the oil and gas industry is already using in some states today, some in the industry have claimed that these new rules are not needed. The industry is also pressuring the EPA to push back its February 2012 deadline for finalizing the rules by a half a year.

The proposed updated standards, while welcome, do not deal with some of the key air pollution issues surrounding oil and gas production because of long-standing loopholes in the Clean Air Act. The oil and gas industry is still exempt from aggregation as part of the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPS) program, and hydrogen sulfide is also exempt from regulation. Common symptoms of exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide can include headache, skin complications, respiratory problems and system damage, confusion, verbal impairment, and memory loss. Congressmen Polis (D-CO) and Hinchey (D-NY) have introduced HR 1204, the BREATHE (The Bringing Reductions to Energy’s Airborne Toxic Health Effects) Act, which would close both loopholes. This legislation would require the industry to further reduce its toxic air emissions.

More also needs to be done to further reduce methane emissions from oil and gas production. A recent Cornell University study found that the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas production is perhaps the same, if not worse, than the greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. The oil and gas industry lacks systematic monitoring or collection of information about methane seepage and releases. In order to begin to deal with the issue of climate change, we must monitor and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from every stage of the natural gas development process.

Lauren Pagel is the policy director of Earthworks, an advocacy group that focuses on the negative impacts of mineral and energy extraction.

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