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EPA orders air pollution controls for fracked gas wells

Air pollution from thousands of natural gas wells that are “fracked” every year will be reduced under regulations that the Environmental Protection Agency issued on Wednesday.

It’s the first time the EPA has required air pollution controls at hydraulically fractured, or fracked, wells. The new rule targets smog-forming volatile organic compounds and air toxics that increase cancer risks. The same equipment also would trap methane, a potent heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere.

President Barack Obama has called for expansion of natural gas production with fracking, but he has said it should be done without harming health and safety. While water pollution has gotten most of the attention, natural gas production, processing and delivery also produce large amounts of air pollution.

The rule mainly would require companies to capture the burst of emissions that occurs as a well is being prepared for commercial production.

Beginning in 2015, all fracked wells will be required to use “green completions.” The process involves truck-mounted equipment that captures the waste that flows for about three to 10 days after water, sand and chemicals are injected into a well. The captured gas and liquid hydrocarbons can be separated, treated and sold.

Fort Worth, Texas, and other cities already require green completions, as do Colorado and Wyoming. The EPA estimates the equipment is used voluntarily in about 50 percent of wells today.

“This levels the playing field,” said EPA air administrator Gina McCarthy. She said the rule was designed to promote responsible production of natural gas and to protect the public, and it will “do it in a way that more than pays for itself.”

The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s lobby group, had argued that the EPA underestimated the cost of the equipment and had asked for an exemption for many wells. The EPA didn’t grant that exemption but accepted the industry’s request for more time to build the equipment needed for green completions.

The institute had no immediate comment about costs because it needed to review the details, said spokesman Carlton Carroll. “We were pleased that they recognized the need for a phase-in period,” he said.

But the Western Energy Alliance, another trade group, said in a statement that the EPA overestimated the benefits and underestimated the costs of compliance. It said the rule would result in minimal environmental benefit and higher energy costs.

Environmental groups said the benefits were broad.

"These important rules start to cut down on air pollution that harms people living near wells, creates smog and warms the climate," David McCabe, senior scientist with Clean Air Task Force, said in a statement. "They are a solid start, but we need to keep working to reduce pollution from the gas industry all the way from the well to the customer. People who live near compressors and equipment already in use need to see their air cleaned up as well. Unfortunately, these rules won’t do that."

The new rule doesn’t address much of the pollution from compressor stations, storage tanks and other equipment used in the natural gas industry.

The Natural Resources Defense Council in a statement said it welcomed the requirement for green completions but was disappointed that they wouldn’t be required for 2 1/2 years, arguing that the equipment to capture the emissions could be built in less time.

During the phase-in period until 2015, companies that don’t use green completions voluntarily will be required to burn off the gas instead. Large flares, up to 80 feet tall, burn off much of the volatile organic compounds, one of the components that make smog, but they produce nitrogen oxides, another smog-forming pollutant.

The EPA’s McCarthy said that the requirement for flaring during the phase-in period before 2015 would “significantly help” reduce the smog that forms from natural gas production. Green completions, required for all wells after Jan. 1, 2015, will reduce smog more because, unlike flaring, it adds no additional pollutants, she said.

The EPA said that green completions reduce the volatile organic compounds released to the air by nearly 95 percent.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said in a report last month that green completions were only one of a number of technologies that should be required to control emissions of methane, the main component of natural gas, and other pollutants.

The new regulation reduces methane as a co-benefit of reducing the other pollutants. McCarthy said that the EPA had no plans for more extensive requirements for methane reductions. Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, in driving climate change.

The EPA was under a court order to issue the new pollution standards. The agency is required to review them every eight years by law. The existing standards were issued in 1985. Environmental groups sued the agency in 2009, saying it had failed to review the standards. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia required the EPA to take final action by Tuesday.

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