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New EPA rules target pollution at fracking sites

Environmentalists applaud the new rules but are disappointed that natural gas producers were given three years to install methane-capturing technology. The industry says the regulations are onerous.

April 18, 2012|By Neela Banerjee, Los Angeles Times
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new rules are expected to affect about 11,000 new wells annually that undergo fracking and an additional 1,200 that are re-fracked to boost production. Above, a fracking operation near Dimock, Pa.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new rules are expected… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

WASHINGTON — TheU.S. Environmental Protection Agencyissued regulations that for the first time will curtail air pollution from natural gas wells that use a controversial production technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The regulations will limit emissions of volatile organic compounds, which react with sunlight to create smog. The rules also will curb carcinogens and methane, the main component of natural gas and a potent contributor to climate change.

The rules are expected to affect about 11,000 new wells annually that undergo fracking and an additional 1,200 that are re-fracked to boost production. The rules go into effect in 60 days, but the EPA gave the industry a three-year transition period to install technology to capture methane.

Most environmentalists welcomed the new rules, although some expressed disappointment over the three-year phase-in of the methane-capturing requirement.

"Obviously, this will be an improvement from the status quo," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "But the delays mean a heck of a lot of smog-forming emissions during the next several years. Breathers will pay that price."

Industry groups, however, complained that the rules were still too onerous, especially for smaller companies. They asserted that the EPA's data are faulty, a charge that the EPA denied, and could stunt the growth of natural gas development.

Barry Russell, chief executive of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America, said the effect of the rules on independent oil and natural gas producers, which drill 95% of wells, as well as on the economy and the national security has the "potential to be profound."

Much of the air pollution at gas sites escapes after the well is drilled but before it is linked to pipelines to take the gas to processing plants and closer to market, said Robin Cooley, a lawyer for Earthjustice, which sued the EPA to get the new pollution standards.

Methane is far more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas if it is simply vented into the air. Companies now let methane escape or burn it, or they capture and sell it as natural gas, a process referred to as "green completion." Nearly half of all companies that frack use green-completion technologies, according to the EPA.

The industry complained that if a nationwide requirement to install green-completion technology were to go into effect this year, there would be too few green-completion companies to meet the increased demand from drillers, making it more expensive to comply with the regulations.

Under the new rules, companies could burn, or flare, their methane for the next three years. By the start of 2015, all fracking sites will have to capture any methane.

"By ensuring the capture of gases that were previously released to pollute our air and threaten our climate, these updated standards will not only protect our health but also lead to more product for fuel suppliers to bring to market," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said.

The rules come at a time when more attention is being paid to the effect of emissions from fracking sites on human health.

Fracking involves shooting high volumes of water and sand laced with chemicals deep underground to break rock formations and unlock reservoirs of oil and gas.

So far, health concerns have centered on fracking's possible effect on water supplies. But a recent three-year study by the Colorado School of Public Health indicated that air pollution may contribute to "acute and chronic health problems for those living near natural gas drilling sites."

So far, Wyoming and Colorado require companies to use the green-completion process.

According to a recent report by Baird Equity Research, "not all of industry has warmed to green completions yet, but it certainly hasn't slowed down permitting in those two states."

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

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