The New EPA Clean Air Act Rules for Dangerous Air Pollution from Natural Gas Operations. What Do They Mean?

The Obama administration has officially lifted industry's complete stranglehold on new federal health, safety, and environmental rules for oil and gas development and issued the first ever federal rules that cover fracking (in this case the air pollution from fracking operations). For years, the industry has been able to prevent any new protections from oil and gas production by spending millions of dollars to influence D.C. politicians--the oil and gas industry has more paid lobbyists than there are Members of Congress! Because of this, the industry has enjoyed special treatment and loopholes from environmental laws, with government forced to neglect the health and safety of citizens in more than 30 states where oil and gas production takes place.

But yesterday this changed--the U.S. EPA issued groundbreaking new limits on the air pollution caused by natural gas production and processing. The two new rules issued yesterday are a top priority for NRDC, and many of our clean air and health experts have been fighting hard for months for the strongest protections possible.  I've blogged before about real families who are suffering right now from toxic air pollution emitted from nearby natural gas wells, tanks, and other facilities, including young children and teenagers. Some families have even been ordered by their doctors to leave their homes in order to preserve their health.

As NRDC President Frances Beinecke recently wrote, the latest scientific research has concluded that air pollution from natural gas fracking sites increases the risk of significant health problems for people living near drill pads. Toxins detected in the air include natural gas-related chemicals linked to headaches, asthma symptoms, childhood leukemia, and other cancers. Parents are afraid to let their children play outside.

NRDC's technical analysis has found that companies can easily capture many if not most of these emissions through the installation of very simple equipment. Vignesh Gowrishankar has provided all the documentation and evidence in his blog. In fact, many companies already do use this equipment--proof that any lagging companies can do the same, as David Doniger makes clear in his blog.

Meleah Geertsma provides all the details of what's in the new rules in her blog. As she points out, these new rules are an important first step in reducing the trio of dangerous air pollutants – cancer-causing benzene, smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and methane, a potent greenhouse gas – coming from the booming natural gas industry.

The new rules are a great improvement over the status quo--but they are not good enough. What are the shortcomings?

  • Limited protections for people living with natural gas development as a neighbor right now: Because most emissions in the oil and gas production sector are from existing sources, but the rules mostly cover new sources and there are no requirements to retrofit existing equipment, the rules will end up covering less than 15% of the total emissions (emissions from re-fracking of existing wells are covered). Here's another way to look at it: of the emissions reductions covered by the new rules, only 5 - 8 percent come from existing sources. The rest will be from future activities that haven't happened yet. Miriam Rotkin-Ellman details our concerns about health impacts in her blog.
  • Companies have until January 2015 (a 2.5 year delay) to fully comply with green completion requirements--a tried and tested alternative to capture the most pollutants for new frack jobs or refracking of existing wells.
  • There are no restrictions on emissions of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas.
  • There is a loophole that allows existing facilities to release up to one ton per year of benzene (a known carcinogen) from large glycol dehydrators--despite analysis showing that this could result in dangerous cancer risk for neighboring communities.
  • The EPA relied on a heavily flawed analysis of health risks which omitted dangerous pollutants, ignored major sources of pollution, and failed to set standards to protect the most vulnerable populations, like children.
  • The rules focus on natural gas production and basically give oil production facilities a free pass. Yet, now that natural gas prices are low, many oil and gas producers are shifting their attention and ramping up their production of oil instead, so oil production will be expanding more and more near where people live and children play or go to school.
  • The entire downstream portion of the oil and gas sector is exempted -- everything after the point where gas enters the transmission pipeline. Downstream sources of air pollution were included in EPA's original draft, but the final rules do not include them.

NRDC will not be letting these gaps go unclosed--we'll continue to fight for cleaner air and healthier communities near oil and gas production

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