The Environmental Protection Agency today took an important step toward reducing the harmful health effects of air pollution from oil and gas drilling operations.
The agency issued new rules that will require companies to capture emissions of toxic chemicals, compounds that contribute to smog, and methane, a potent global warming gas.
In a significant concession to the oil and gas industry, which has lobbied furiously to water down the requirements, the agency extended the time for full implementation to nearly three years, setting a limit of January 2015. By that final 2015 deadline, companies must have equipment in place to capture emissions through so-called “green completions.” Prior to the deadline companies will be able to flare or burn escaping gas and chemicals.
Gina McCarthy, assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation, said the change in the compliance deadline came when EPA determined it would take time for industry to get the technology in place for capturing emissions and to train personnel.
“We took a look at the data. There does need to be time for equipment to be manufactured, for training to be conducted…. This is a reasonable step…. It wasn’t politically motivated.”
EPA rejected industry appeals to limit the rules only to wells emitting high levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.
The proposed rules include the first federal standards for hydraulic fracturing operations. The rules will cover the estimated 13,000 U.S. wells that are hydraulically fractured or re-fractured each year, and apply to various parts of the oil and gas development process, from well completion to processing.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a controversial practice that injects a high pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into underground rock formations where gas and oil is trapped. These new rules could result in a significant reduction of methane leaks during well completions. The prime component of natural gas, methane is more than 20 times more potent a global warming gas than carbon monoxide.
EPA officials estimate that the regulations will cut smog-forming and toxic chemicals now released during well development by 95%, and cut about about a quarter — or 540,000 tons — of the industry’s overall release of VOCs. The oil and gas sector is the largest industrial emitter of VOCs, spewing some 2.2 million tons a year in 2009.
The rules require the use of an already proven technology to capture emissions released during “flowback,” a three to 10 day period when water, fluids, gas and chemicals rush to the surface after drilling is completed.
The flowback mixture usually includes lots of VOCs, methane and hazardous chemicals like benzene. The capturing technologies, known as green completions, are already required in Colorado and Wyoming. The EPA estimates that the industry will actually save $11 million to $19 million a year through the sale of captured gas.
A separate part of the new rules package will cut chemical emissions of toxic chemicals during transport and production of natural gas by imposing new standards on compressors, controllers, storage tanks and gas processing plants.
EPA also estimates the rules will cut methane releases by 26 percent and air toxics by almost 30 percent.
Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow with the Center for American Progress Action Fund.