The Obama administration on Wednesday finalized new standards aimed at sharply reducing dangerous air emissions from the nation's rapidly expanding natural gas drilling and production industry.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said the standards are "flexible, affordable and achievable," but still delayed their complete implementation in the face of industry lobbying and fierce political criticism that the agency is costing jobs and slowing energy production.
"The president has been clear that he wants to continue to expand production of important domestic resources like natural gas, and today's standard supports that goal while making sure these fuels are produced without threatening the health of the American people," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.
The EPA action finalized new source performance standards and hazardous air pollution standards to require gas producers to better control volatile organic compounds and other toxic emissions at key points in the drilling and distribution process. New pollution controls will also begin to capture fugitive emissions of natural gas, or methane, which itself is a powerful greenhouse gas.
"These rules are a major American public health milestone," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians, a citizen group that sued to force EPA's action. "Although we are disappointed that EPA may condone wasteful drilling, on the whole, this is a win-win plan that protects people and promotes responsible energy development."
Howard Feldman, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, said EPA made some improvements in the rule, notably allowing companies until 2015 to fully comply, but said the industry group needs more time to examine the final agency action.
"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," Feldman said in a prepared statement.
The EPA action comes amid a growing national debate over energy policy, and as new technologies have fueled tremendous growth in natural gas drilling, especially in shale-gas fields like the Marcellus Shale areas in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
EPA targeted its emissions rules on natural gas wells that are drilled using hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which uses water, chemicals and sand injected underground at high pressures to free trapped natural gas supplies.
Agency officials said they especially aimed to reduce emissions that are vented during a three- to 10-day period called "completion," when wells transition from drilling to gas production. During this process, "flowback" that contains fracturing fluids, water, and gases come to the surface at high velocity and volume.
Eventually, operators will have to reduce these emissions through so-called "green completion" in which gases are removed from the flowback, rather than being vented into the atmosphere.
EPA agreed to give industry until 2015 to design, construct and purchase needed equipment for green completions, agency air quality chief Gina McCarthy told reporters during a telephone press conference. In the meantime, operators will generally be required to burn off gases with pollution-reducing flares, McCarthy said.
The final EPA action comes after a University of Colorado study, issued last month, that found potentially harmful levels of air pollution from natural gas operations. Over the past two years, a separate series of scientific papers have examined questions about the conventional wisdom that a switch to natural gas would really reduce greenhouse emissions and help combat global warming.
In West Virginia, the natural gas drilling law passed during a special session in December gives the state Department of Environmental Protection until July 2013 to complete a special study of air pollution from gas operations.
EPA said its new standards would reduce by nearly 95 percent the volatile organic compounds emitted from more than 11,000 newly fracked wells every year. EPA also said that natural gas emissions reductions would save companies $11 million to $19 million a year when the rules are fully implemented in 2015.
Also, EPA said that the rules would provide $440 million annually in "climate co-benefits," including the value of avoided health impacts, crop damage and damage to coastal properties from global warming.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.
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