New EPA Rule to Reduce Hydrofracking Air Pollution
Despite intense industry opposition, today the EPA issued the first-ever federal regulations related to hydraulic fracturing. The EPA’s Oil and Natural Gas Pollution Standards will limit total emissions released during the many stages of natural gas production by 95%, specifically targeting Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and other toxic chemical emissions that result during hydraulic fracturing.
Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, is the process of extracting natural gas from deep below the Earth’s surface. It involves drilling a well deep into the ground and injecting water, sand and toxic chemicals at high pressure to literally fracture, or “frack,” the ground. Due to outside pressure, the natural gas industry is already exempt from provisions of 7 out of 15 federal environmental laws — including restrictions on VOCs and smog-causing emissions that other energy industries must follow. In 2009, advocacy groups filed a lawsuit contending that in failing to apply the same emissions standards to the oil and natural gas industry, the EPA had violated the Clean Air Act. Today, three years later, the Oil and Natural Gas Pollution Standards are a response to that suit.
Although the natural gas drilling boom across the country has brought the U.S. closer than ever to energy independence, these tens of thousands of drilling wells have also led to significant air quality concerns. When fluids used for underground hydrofracking return to the Earth’s surface, they carry gases that vent into the air. The oil and natural gas industry is the single largest industrial source of gaseous VOCs, which are toxic chemicals that contribute to the formation of ground-level smog. Human exposure to this smog can lead to a wide range of health effects, such as aggravated asthma and even premature death.
There are several documented instances that demonstrate the correlation between hydrofracking and smog formation. In 2009 in Dish, Texas, a rural town located on the Barnett Shale (which hosts 12,000 gas wells), the state’s environmental regulator detected unsafe levels of benzene in the air likely coming from the town’s 60 wells, storage tanks, compressors and other equipment. Residents of Dish started experiencing unexplainable health issues, such as headaches, dizziness, blackouts, and muscle contractions. In March 2011, the Upper Green River Basin in western Wyoming experienced record-high levels of ground-level ozone that was eventually connected with the fumes from drilling sites.
The newest EPA rule is long awaited by those who point to these communities in Texas, Wyoming, and other hydrofracking hotspots as demonstrating a need for increased federal regulation. Today’s finalized rules were originally targeted for completion on February 28, but the oil and gas industry successfully pushed to delay the issuance to early April and then won another delay until today. Of course, the oil and natural gas industry contends is that these rules are overly aggressive, but this couldn’t be further from the truth: Hydrofracking remains largely unregulated by the EPA or any other federal agency, and the minimal regulations in place differ from state to state. While the industry maintains that these new regulations would be costly and bad for the economy, the EPA contends that by upgrading to new technology that traps smog-forming gases, companies could then sell this product and earn additional profits up to $30 million.
The Oil and Natural Gas Pollution Standards come at the heels of President Obama’s announcement that he would convene a working group of federal agencies to better coordinate responses to and proposed regulations on hydrofracking. As the Obama Administration continues to call for expanded domestic natural gas production as part of his “all of the above” energy strategy, stay tuned for more regulations coming down the pike.
Image courtesy of Daniel Zalubowski/Associated Press.