EPA Proposes New Emissions Rules

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
29 July 2011
By Don Hopey

Spurred by the ballooning development of Marcellus Shale and other shale gas plays in the South and West, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing new emissions standards to control and reduce air toxins emitted from oil- and gas-drilling operations.

The EPA said the proposed rules, the first changes in decades, would reduce air pollution from well drilling, leaking pipes, storage tanks and compressor stations and could be achieved using existing fugitive gas collection technologies already employed by several companies and required by some states, but not Pennsylvania.

"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," said Gina McCarthy, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. She was referring to the companies' ability to collect and sell gas that currently escapes into the air.

Environmental and public health organizations nationwide and in Pennsylvania voiced general support while the drilling industry opposed the proposal, which was mandated by a court-ordered consent decree.

Many were cautious, however, because some details were not available Thursday afternoon from the EPA. The EPA must finalize the rules by Feb. 28, 2012.

Before that happens, the agency will hold three public hearings in the Pittsburgh, Dallas and Denver areas. Dates of the hearings were not announced but will be set soon, according to the EPA.

The proposed rules are "a move in the right direction but don't go far enough to address aggregate pollution emissions from multiple drilling operations," said Jan Jarrett, president and chief executive officer for Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, a statewide organization active on Marcellus Shale issues.

Last month, PennFuture filed a federal lawsuit over air pollution issues related to multiple well, pipeline, tank and compressor station emissions at Ultra Resources Inc. operations in Tioga and Potter counties.

"We've got an air pollution problem in the Pittsburgh region that is intractable, quite deadly and a serious threat to public health," Ms. Jarrett said. "As more wells are developed in the Marcellus, air emissions will become more and more of a problem."

Clean Air Watch president Frank O'Donnell praised the EPA's approach.

"For an agency that's frequently derided as 'job-killing,' this proposal looks very promising," Mr. O'Donnell said. "It would not only reduce air pollution but would save industry money. It doesn't solve all the issues associated with fracking, but at least it would reduce the air pollution problems caused by it."

But Kathryn Klaber, president and executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a pro-drilling lobbying and advocacy organization representing the industry, said the proposed rules are "unworkable" and could hurt industry productivity.

"As this process moves forward, we look forward to providing EPA with fact-based information regarding our best practices and industry-leading operations, which are ensuring that the region's air quality is not impacted," Ms. Klaber said. "In fact, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection studies have determined that Marcellus activities do not present any 'air-related health issues.' "

The department has conducted three short-term air quality studies near Marcellus well drilling operations in the past eight months and found no public health concerns, although critics have pointed out the department did not look at the cumulative impact of the pollutants.

Katy Gresh, a state DEP spokeswoman, said the department was made aware of the proposed rules Thursday afternoon and is reviewing them.

The EPA's proposed rules would set new source standards for the oil and gas industry that would cut emissions of volatile organic compounds by nearly a quarter and cut VOC emissions from new and modified hydraulically fractured gas wells by almost 95 percent. The rules also propose to limit sulfur dioxide and air toxics emissions from wells, gas transmission lines and storage facilities.

The industry could achieve those emissions reductions by using existing technologies, including the 150 cost-effective technologies that are promoted by the EPA's 20-year-old Natural Gas STAR Program.

Some of those technologies include use of no-flare or contained-flare well completions rather than open flaring of wells; use of no-bleed or low-bleed valves to reduce gas leakage; and installation of closed loop systems on condensate tanks and compressor stations to capture VOCs and other waste gas emissions, including methane, that are now vented into the air.

"The proposal will protect communities by reducing exposures to pollutants that can cause cancer, such as benzene, and preventing 'bad air days' caused by ozone smog," said Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This proposal will finally address some significant pollution problems that have gone unaddressed for far too long."

The agency's first-ever proposed rules addressing fracking operations also recognize "some of the inherent health risks associated with this method of natural gas extraction," the council said in its news release.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.