Issue Date: April 23, 2012
EPA Issues Fracking Rules
For the first time, air pollution from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, by natural gas drilling operations will be controlled under a final regulation issued by the Environmental Protection Agency on April 18.
The regulation will require fracking operations to install equipment by January 2015 that will reduce emissions of ozone-producing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants, such as benzene and hexane. A side benefit will be capture of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, said Gina McCarthy, EPA assistant administrator in the Office of Air & Radiation, when releasing the regulation. The main anthropogenic source of methane in the atmosphere is leakage from the oil and gas industry. Methane is the primary component of natural gas.
The regulation will affect some 13,000 natural gas wells that are subjected to injections of water and chemicals at high pressure to release natural gas trapped in shale formations. The rule is controversial because it will constrain drillers nationwide that have found an abundant source of natural gas through fracking. The new supplies of gas are having a profound impact on the U.S. economy and industry. In particular, the chemical industry is profiting from expanding inventories and falling prices of natural gas feedstock.
But thousands of new gas fracking operations have increased the release of air pollutants and methane, which is a greenhouse gas that is at least 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide (C&EN, April 16, page 34).
EPA released its original proposal for regulating air emissions from fracking last July. The American Petroleum Institute (API) and other industry trade associations criticized that plan in terms of how soon it would be implemented. The final regulation, McCarthy said, addresses those concerns and gives gas drillers more than two years to buy and install the equipment necessary to capture methane and other pollutants. Meanwhile, fracking operations are allowed to flare methane and other air emissions.
The modified regulation received tentative praise from America’s Natural Gas Association and API. The trade groups say the changes are “constructive” and the improvements “allow our companies to continue reducing emissions while producing the oil and natural gas our country needs.”
The final rule received support from environmental groups, including two in the Southwest—WildEarth Guardians and San Juan Citizens Alliance—that sued to force EPA to issue the regulation.
WildEarth Guardians’ Climate & Energy Program Director Jeremy Nichols says, “Allowing flaring for more than two years is a bit of a disappointment. We have the ability to capture that gas. On the other hand, flaring will keep these poisons out of the air.” The onus, he adds, is now on industry to move ahead and install the new equipment.
About half of new U.S. gas wells already have devices installed that eliminate VOC emissions and capture air pollutants and methane, McCarthy said. The recovered methane will generate up to $19 million in annual savings beyond the cost of equipment, she added.
The extent of methane leakage is a point of contention. Industry says EPA’s estimates are too high. Surveys by gas companies and environmental groups, among others, are under way to better quantify how much methane is escaping.
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