EPA fracking regulations delayed

Apr 20, 2012

In response to a court deadline, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalized standards to reduce harmful air pollution associated with oil and natural gas production, but delayed implementing some of the regulations until Jan. 1, 2015.

Natural gas companies using controversial fracking methods have close to three years to install air emission equipment designed to capture and prevent toxins and methane from escaping into the atmosphere.

The American Petroleum Institute (API), the largest industry trade group, said the new standards are an improvement over previous proposals, and said they give companies the time to meet the new regulations without jeopardizing the production of natural gas.

“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,” said API’s director of regulatory and scientific affairs, Howard Feldman.

The updated standards, required by the Clean Air Act, were created in part from the feedback from a range of stakeholders including the public, public health groups, states and industry, according to an EPA press release last Wednesday.

According to the release, “The final standards reduce implementation costs while also ensuring they are achievable and can be met by relying on proven, cost-effective technologies as well as processes already in use at approximately half of the fractured natural gas wells in the United States. These technologies will not only reduce 95 percent of the harmful emissions from these wells that contribute to smog and lead to health impacts, they will also enable companies to collect additional natural gas that can be sold.”

“By ensuring the capture of gases that were previously released to pollute our air and threaten our climate, these updated standards will not only protect our health, but also lead to more product for fuel suppliers to bring to market,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

Much of the air pollution from fracked gas wells is vented when the well transitions from drilling to actual production, a three- to 10-day process which is referred to as “completion.” An earlier version of the rule limiting air pollution from gas wells would have required companies to install pollution-reducing equipment immediately after the rule was finalized.

Industry groups had pushed hard for the delay, saying the equipment to reduce pollution at the wellhead during completion was not readily available. According to EPA, about 13,000 wells a year are being fracked, while other groups claim there are as many as 25,000. The process involves water, chemicals and sand injected at high pressure underground to release trapped natural gas.

EPA’s analysis of the final rules shows that the new system is highly cost-effective, relying on widely available technologies and practices already deployed at approximately half of all fractured wells, and consistent with steps the industry is already taking in many cases to capture additional natural gas for sale, offsetting the cost of compliance.

EPA said the rules will result in $11 to $19 million in savings for industry each year.

Based on new data provided during the public comment period, the final rule establishes a phase-in period that will ensure emissions reduction technology is broadly available.

During the first phase, until January 2015, owners and operators must either flare their emissions or use emissions reduction technology called “green completions,” technologies that are already widely deployed at wells. In 2015, all new fractured wells will be required to use green completions. The final rule does not require new federal permits.

Besides the new standards for oil and gas wells, EPA also updated existing rules for natural gas processing plants, storage tanks and transmission lines that will reduce amounts of cancercausing air pollution, such as benzene, and also reduce methane.

During the nearly 100-day public comment period, the agency received more than 150,000 comments on the proposed rules from the public, industry, environmental groups and states. The agency also held three public hearings.

API said that much of the industry already complies with the very regulations they wrote.

“We don’t need (the EPA) to come and tell our members we will save you money,” said Feldman. “Their business is natural gas. They get it that they are trying to capture as much gas as they can.”

Much of the natural gas drilling boom can be credited to hydraulic fracturing, but the technique continues to get its share of press time over the air and water concerns. But in this round of controversy, water concerns seem to have been scarce. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor