EPA's proposal for clearing the air of oil and gas pollution: a step forward, but not enough

Back in July I blogged about new rules proposed by the U.S. EPA to rein in some of the most dangerous air pollution caused by oil and gas production. These rules have not been updated for a long time, but the industry has been expanding and polluting more than ever. Some of the air pollution levels in areas impacted by the oil and gas industry are insanely high, such as ozone levels that, on some days, are almost twice the federal standard. People are suffering real health impacts from oil and gas production across the country, and the data we have seen are quite alarming. The industry is also a significant source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Today NRDC and our partners in other organizations submitted comments to the EPA on its proposed new rules. The comments are hundreds of pages long, and much of the analysis was conducted by NRDC experts Meleah Geertsma, Vignesh Gowrishankar, Avinash Kar, and Miriam Rotkin-Ellman. The EPA rules address different pollutants and sources.

After the EPA reviews all the comments it receives from the public, it will publish final rules. If you are reading this blog post on November 30, you still have time (until midnight Eastern Time) to send in your own comment letter at this link. While EPA’s proposed rules are a huge improvement over the status quo and, if finalized, will provide critical protections to local communities from the current oil and gas development boom happening throughout the country, they do not go far enough to protect public health and the environment. EPA needs to strengthen these rules to provide local communities with the vital safeguards that they need from harmful air pollution and to reduce the oil and gas industry’s substantial contribution to climate change. Here is a summary of our take on the EPA’s proposal:

  • We strongly support EPA’s proposed New Source Performance Standards (NSPS). The proposal would regulate air pollution from fracking and from equipment that is not currently regulated at all, including compressors, pneumatic devices, and storage tanks. Many of the controls proposed by EPA will actually save the industry money by capturing more natural gas that can be sold instead of wasted. We also support the better proposed standards for leak detection and sulfur dioxide emissions at natural gas processing plants. 
  • We support EPA’s proposal to set limits on air toxics for previously uncontrolled emission points within the oil and gas sector, including small glycol dehydrators and certain storage vessels, and to require periodic monitoring, through electronic reporting. 
  • We are concerned, however, that EPA’s NSPS proposal would not regulate all air pollutants nor all sources of pollutants from the oil and gas industry that pose a threat to public health. For example, the EPA proposal would not directly regulate methane emissions – even though methane is the dominant pollutant emitted from the oil and gas industry and is a significant contributor to global warming.  In addition, with the exception of refracked wells, EPA’s proposed rule would not limit the substantial air pollution generated from existing sources – it would only address emissions from new and modified sources, even though existing equipment is an enormous source of dangerous air pollution. EPA’s propsal also ignores “wildcat” and “delineation” wells, oil wells, well cleanup activities, and produced water tanks and pits. 
  • EPA should have included limits on hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a highly toxic gas that can lead to neurological impairment or death at relatively low concentrations, and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), which has been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular problems, including aggravated asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, decreased lung function, heart attacks, and premature death. Sensitive populations, include the elderly, children, and people with existing heart or lung problems, are most at risk from particulate matter pollution, and it is generated during every phase of a drilling project. 
  • In the part of the rule covering air toxics, EPA did not assess the health risks from all dangerous pollutants emitted by oil and gas facilities as shown by the scientific literature, known to be part of the chemical composition of oil and gas, or detected in air monitoring conducted near oil and gas facilities. For example, EPA did not assess pollutants like the carcinogen 1,3 butadiene, the neurotoxin mercury, or many fracking chemicals that are listed as hazardous air pollutants. 
  • EPA did not set limits to protect against the full health threat to the most vulnerable populations living near oil and gas facilities. Instead, EPA should have given meaningful consideration to the health risk to children and cumulative impacts in communities that face many sources of toxic air pollution in addition to oil and gas. For some of the regulations addressing air toxics, the Clean Air Act requires EPA to provide an "ample margin" of safety to protect "public health." But EPA barely mentions health in its “ample margin” analysis and focuses almost exclusively on cost considerations. 
  • EPA’s proposed limits on toxic air pollutants are too weak, and are not even as strong as they are in California. For example, EPA would allow 2% of equipment to leak forever, no matter how much toxic air pollution goes into the air as a result, and EPA bases its regulations on 95% efficiency in controlling leaks from  storage tanks and dehydrators, whereas it should be basing its rule on levels of emissions achieved by storage tanks and dehydrators in places that currently require at least 98 to 99% efficiency control.  
  • EPA’s proposed emission reductions for toxic air pollutants are based on the maximum achievable level of control in 1999, not on today’s technologies.  

NRDC supports the EPA proposal because it would make the air much cleaner than current rules, better protecting public health and the environment. But the Clean Air Act requires EPA to go further to clean up the dirty oil and gas industry. Air pollution control technologies are readily available for the industry to purchase and install, and can actually save the industry money. EPA needs to strengthen these rules to better benefit the economy and improve the health of communities across the country.