Separating Fracked From Fiction: The Truth About the American Petroleum Institute's Attacks on EPA's New Air Pollution Standards For Natural Gas Fracking

In his January State of the Union Address, President Obama committed to developing our nation’s abundant shale gas resources “without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”  Taking a major step to fulfill that commitment, the Environmental Protection Agency is poised to set standards to begin controlling the dangerous air pollution that comes from natural gas wells – especially those that are hydraulically fractured (“fracked”) – and from related oil and gas production facilities. 

These important public health safeguards are now under final review by the White House Office of Management and Budget and must be issued by April 17th under a court-ordered deadline obtained by two western environmental groups, WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance.  NRDC has been working hard, along with partner organizations, for the strongest protections from the soup of dangerous air pollutants coming from these wells and associated oil and gas production operations. But the standards are under attack from the American Petroleum Institute and other powerful industry lobbyists.

Fracking produces a lot of natural gas, but also a host of air and water contaminants.  Millions of Americans are exposed, and they need national standards to protect their health and their surroundings.  These standards are an important start on delivering the air pollution safeguards they deserve.

Fracked wells and other oil and gas production and processing sources release millions of tons of air pollution – including benzene that causes cancer, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that form the ozone smog that triggers asthma attacks, and methane that contributes to climate change.  These air pollutants are a clear and present danger to our children, our communities and our planet.  The EPA standards will be an important start – cutting the sector’s VOCs and methane pollution by about 25 percent and air toxics emissions by about 30 percent.

Watch out, though, because the American Petroleum Institute and other industry lobby groups are reaching high into the White House in the effort to carve huge loopholes in the EPA standards, if not to block them altogether.  API’s garnered quite a reputation for playing fast and loose with oil and gas facts, and they are at it again.  Here’s API’s misinformation-filled letter to the president’s senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett.  And here’s our response, sent today.

API is aiming straight at the heart of the EPA standards.  One of the largest sources of air pollution in this sector is the whoosh of pollution that comes, like popping the top of a can of soda, in the first few days after a newly fracked and refracked natural gas well is completed and is about to start production.  These pollutants – a mixture of VOCs, methane, and toxic chemicals – can be kept out of the air through a well-demonstrated practice called “green completion.”  The initial rush of pollution is captured in truck-mounted portable tanks, separated, and sold for a profit, instead of being leaked into the air. 

As we show in a recent NRDC report called “Leaking Profits,” green completions and nine other pollution control measures are proven, practical, and profitable.  In fact, if fully implemented, these 10 measures would capture hundreds of thousands of tons of smog-forming emissions annually, along with millions of tons of methane (the main constituent of natural gas) and increase the gas industry’s profits by $2 billion per year. 

Green completions have been required in Colorado and Wyoming for several years and oil and gas production has increased in those states, outpacing national growth and demonstrating that federal standards will not slow down domestic natural gas production.  (EPA’s current green completion standards will have no impact on oil production or gasoline prices, because they are aimed at natural gas wells only.)   Additionally, EPA estimates that its new standards will create nearly 3,000 jobs nationwide.

API and other industry groups are after loopholes and exemptions that would cut the heart out of these safeguards.  They want a total exemption for all oil and natural gas pollution sources – not just fracked natural gas wells – where less than 10 percent of their leaking air pollution consists of VOCs.  This is the classic exemption that swallows the rule.  It would gut the standards because, as API’s own data show, the percentage of VOCs in the pollution leaking from most wells and equipment falls below this arbitrary threshold.  Even a lower percentage threshold would exempt thousands of wells and very large amounts of pollution. 

The exemption also makes no economic sense.  The lower the percentage of VOCs coming from a well, the higher the percentage of methane.  The more methane you recover, the more money you make selling it as natural gas instead of leaking it away and fueling climate change.   

API is also seeking a long delay in starting any green completion requirements, claiming there aren’t enough trucks tricked out to do the job.  As anyone who’s watched the half a dozen “pimp-my-truck” shows on cable TV can tell you, building these rigs isn’t rocket science.  Natural gas drillers are good at welding pipes and tanks.  If they can’t lease a rig, they can build it themselves.  Each rig costs under $500,000 to build, an investment that pays back in six months to a year. 

It’s not surprising that an industry that has had its way with air quality and people’s health for so long would seek to eviscerate EPA’s standards.  But API’s complaints fly in the face of good science and good economics.  Now is the time to get started on meeting the president’s commitment to developing our natural gas resources safely, without putting Americans’ health and safety at risk. 

                                                       Thanks to Meleah Geertsma for co-writing this post