EPA Proposes First-Ever Air Standards for 'Fracking'

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday proposed the first-ever standards to reduce air pollution caused by the controversial natural gas drilling practice, hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") involves pumping large volumes of water and chemicals under pressure into underground shale formations to fracture the rock and release natural gas.

The process has revitalized the domestic natural gas industry, particularly surrounding the Marcellus Shale formation in the Northeast, but environmental groups and some researchers say it presents a risk throughout the US – not only to air quality, but also to subterranean water tables.

The proposed standards rely on operators’ ability to capture and sell natural gas that currently escapes into the air. In doing so, EPA says the industry will create an additional $30 million a year in additional revenues, while reducing harmful emissions.

"This administration has been clear that natural gas is a key component of our clean energy future, and the steps announced today will help ensure responsible production of this domestic energy source," says Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. "Reducing these emissions will help cut toxic pollution that can increase cancer risks and smog that can cause asthma attacks and premature death – all while giving these operators additional product to bring to market."

EPA says the proposal would cut smog-forming volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from several types of processes and equipment used in the oil and gas industry, including a 95% reduction in VOCs emitted during the completion of new and modified hydraulically fractured wells.

As written, the standards wouldn’t require changes to existing wells, unless they are significantly modified.

Natural gas production in the U.S. is growing, with more than 25,000 new and existing wells fractured or re-fractured each year, according to Agency figures.

The VOC reductions in the proposal are expected to help reduce ozone nonattainment problems in many areas where oil and gas production occurs. In addition, the VOC reductions would yield a significant environmental benefit by reducing methane emissions from new and modified wells.

Methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas – more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The standards also apply to equipment not used directly in the drilling process, such as storage tanks and transmission lines.

Thursday’s proposal includes reviews of four air regulations for the oil and natural gas industry as required by the Clean Air Act: a new source performance standard for VOCs from equipment leaks at gas processing plants; a new source performance standard for sulfur dioxide emissions from gas processing plants; an air toxics standard for oil and natural gas production; and an air toxics standard for natural gas transmission and storage.

EPA is under a court order to propose new standards by July 28, 2011 and take final action by Feb. 28, 2012. As part of the public comment period, EPA will hold three public hearings, in the Dallas, Denver and Pittsburgh areas.

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