The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published its first restrictions on air pollution from natural gas fracking operations, requiring energy companies to make big reductions in the output of volatile organic compounds, air toxics and methane by flaring or using “green completions” to separate gas and liquid hydrocarbons in gas-well flowback.
The rules are designed to cut emissions of VOCs by 95 percent from about 11,000 newly fracked wells each year; reduce air toxics such as benzene by up to 20,000 tons, and lower the emission of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – by the equivalent of up to 33 million tones of CO2.
The VOC reductions are designed to reduce ground-level ozone, or smog, and cut the risk of asthma attacks or hospital admissions. The agency estimated the benefits of lower methane emissions at $440 million annually by 2015, based on reduced impacts to health, crops and coastal areas.
The measures are already in use at about half the gas wells that use hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in the U.S., the agency said in finalizing the rules on April 17.
“In many ways, it’s business as usual for the leadership in this industry,” said Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy, during a conference call with reporters.
The rules, which will be phased in until January 2015, represent increasing federal oversight of an industry that is largely regulated by the states, and which has strongly resisted calls for more federal control amid public concern that fracking contaminates air and ground water with toxic chemicals.
The measures apply to wells and other gas-industry plants such as gathering lines and compressor stations that are not currently regulated at the federal level.
The rule allows what the EPA called the “continued responsible growth” of natural gas production which in recent years has changed the U.S. energy outlook by offering an abundant domestic source of the fuel that burns with about half the CO2 emissions of coal.
Industry and Environmental Groups See Rule Differently
Anticipating industry opposition, the agency said it had consulted with the industry, the public, health groups and other government officials before finalizing the rule, which was proposed in July 2011.
It also argued that by reducing the amount of methane that goes to waste, the industry will be able to save between $11 million and $19 million when the rules are fully implemented, offsetting the cost of compliance.
The phase-in period allows operators to flare or use green completions – which are already required by some states – until January 2015, at which time only green completions will be allowed.
The American Petroleum Institute said an initial read of the rule indicates the EPA had made “constructive” changes during the comment period.
“EPA has made some improvements in the rules that allow our companies to continue reducing emissions while producing the oil and natural gas our country needs. This is a large and complicated rulemaking for an industry so critical to the economy, and we need to thoroughly review the final rule to fully understand its impacts,” API’s Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs, Howard Feldman, said in a statement.
“disingenuous and fraudulent” – Pyle
The Institute for Energy Research, which investigates government regulation of energy markets, said the rule signals the EPA’s “war on affordable energy.”
“Today’s announced rule will increase the regulatory burden on natural gas producers that use proven, safe hydraulic fracturing technologies to provide low-cost energy to American consumers,” said IER President Tom Pyle. He called the EPA’s claim of cost savings to the industry as “disingenuous and fraudulent.”
For more about fracking regulations and green completions from Breaking Energy, click here.
But environmental groups praised the measures, saying they will protect public health and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but argued that the phase-in period is unnecessary because the industry is able to make the changes immediately.
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune called the rules “an important first step” to controlling air pollution from the gas industry. “It’s time we clean up the natural gas industry’s dirty and reckless practices,” he said.