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U.S. EPA adopts first air rules on fracking, but drillers have until 2015 to comply

By Bob Downing
Beacon Journal staff writer

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday approved the first clean-air rules on drilling for natural gas with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but environmentalists expressed dissatisfaction with a 2½-year delay in implementing a key portion of the new rules.

The long-awaited air rules are not expected to have a big effect on the shale-drilling boom in Ohio and other states, experts said.

The new safeguards, when fully implemented, will cut emissions of volatile organic compounds from drilling by nearly 25 percent and cut VOC emissions from new and modified fracked wells by almost 95 percent, the EPA said.

The agency said the new limits would reduce VOC emissions from drilling by 190,000 to 290,000 tons a year, and cancer-causing benzene levels would be cut by 12,000 to 20,000 tons a year.

It also will reduce escaped methane, the key component of natural gas and a potent global warming gas, by 1 million to 1.7 million tons a year, the agency said.

Such chemicals — seen as a growing problem — produce unhealthy smog, put health-threatening toxics, including hexane and formaldehyde, into the air and contribute to global warming.

The new rules are a first effort by the federal EPA to regulate fracking.

But the Obama administration, which has strongly backed natural gas drilling, made significant concessions to the oil and gas industry. That includes a delay in requiring that gases be captured at the well until Jan. 1, 2015.

The original federal plan called for compliance in 60 days.

The industry argued that stricter federal rules could cut back on natural gas production by 11 percent, oil production by 37 percent and that fracking would be cut by more than 50 percent.

The new rules are “practical, flexible, achievable and affordable,” EPA spokeswoman Gina McCarthy said in a national teleconference.

The delay was necessary to assure the technologies needed to curtail emissions can be built and distributed and that workers can be trained, she said.

The rules cover the production, processing, transmission and storage of oil and natural gas, another issue with fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing has spawned a natural gas-drilling boom but has raised environmental concerns for its toll on surrounding water and air. The new rules do not address water concerns.

The new rule won praise from environmentalists, but Ohio activists were unhappy with the delay.

The EPA took “a major step forward,” the Sierra Club and five other eco-groups said in a joint statement.

“The rapid expansion of oil and gas drilling without modern air-pollution controls has exposed millions of Americans to a toxic brew of cancer-causing, smog-producing and climate-changing air pollutants,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Left to police itself for too long, the oil and gas industry has failed to even adopt pollution controls that pay for themselves.”

Columbus-based Teresa Mills of No Frack Ohio and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, said the 2015 date is “a real letdown.”

She said the delay is likely to result in dirtier air in eastern Ohio with its developing Utica shale activity, and Ohioans wanted the new rules implemented sooner.

That dirty air in Ohio is likely to trigger increased asthma attacks, more school and work missed, and major health problems, she said.

“It’s very disturbing,” she said.

The industry was pleased by the EPA announcement.

“Overall, EPA has made some important adjustments in the rules,” said Howard Feldman of the American Petroleum Institute. “Most of the changes were constructive.”

The EPA rejected a proposal by Feldman’s group to exempt a number of wells from the clean-air rules.

Chesapeake Energy Corp, the most active company in Ohio, declined to comment on the new rules.

Lobbyists from Devon Energy Corp. and Chesapeake Energy sought to delay and scale back the rule, while refuting eco-group’s claims that fracking causes air pollution, Bloomberg News reported.

Southwestern Energy Co. and Devon said they already use systems to capture methane and other fumes at wells, a key requirement of the ruling.

The EPA said half of the fractured wells already deploy technologies in line with the final standards. Colorado and Wyoming have adopted rules on air emissions from fracking.

The EPA rules include incentives aimed at encouraging drillers to use technology called green completions, which collects methane, the main component of natural gas, when a well is first tapped. The system relies on truck-mounted rigs that capture these gases and put them into the pipelines to be sold at a profit instead of leaked into the air.

Starting in 2015, all wells in the United States must use the green completions technology.

The industry will be permitted to burn, or flare, escaping gases until 2015.

The EPA announcement came in order to comply with a court-imposed deadline.

The agency got more than 150,000 comments on the new rules that were first proposed in early 2011. Three public hearings were held in Pittsburgh, Denver and Arlington, Texas.

For more information, go to www.epa.gov/airquality/oilandgas.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.