In gas patches East to West, tales of tainted water wells have garnered widespread media attention, putting hydraulic fracturing -- broadly credited for the natural gas industry's meteoric expansion of late -- at the center of one of the country's hottest environmental fights. But despite reams of circumstantial evidence, incontrovertible proof that fracking itself -- as opposed to, say, shoddy gas well construction -- enables gas and chemicals to migrate into aquifers remains elusive.
What's better understood, but grabs far fewer headlines, is the impact natural gas development has on air quality. Gas production laces the air with toxic substances like sulfur dioxide and benzene, a volatile organic compound, or VOC, and emits pollutants that form smog, which blankets many Western gas fields. Ozone -- the main component of smog -- is created when VOCs and nitrogen oxide interact with sunlight. It can cause respiratory ailments, while VOCs themselves can be carcinogenic.
Because of the high pressure at which fracking fluid is injected into and flows back out of the ground, more pollution initially escapes from fracked wells than from conventional ones. Whether or not wells are fracked, pollutants leak out all along the production chain -- from pipelines, storage tanks, diesel trucks and compressor stations. Tens of thousands of new gas wells have been drilled in recent years, and in production hubs, air pollution has simultaneously worsened. Ozone levels spiked above federal limits 26 times in rural Utah's Uintah Basin in the first three months of 2011. There, and in Sublette County, Wyo., ozone levels have even exceeded those of famously smoggy Los Angeles.
Yet air-quality standards for oil and gas production haven't been updated in years; VOC standards have sat untouched since 1985. In late July, however, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed ambitious new air rules for the industry -- among the first federal regulations of any kind to cover fracking. "They're a major milestone," says Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, which, with another group, sued the EPA to prompt the new rules. "The emission reductions are just huge."
The rules would mainly cover VOCs and air toxics, pollutants such as sulfur dioxide that are known or believed to cause cancer and other major illnesses. They aim to cut the industry's overall VOC emissions by an estimated 25 percent, air toxics by 30 percent, and methane -- a super-charged greenhouse gas -- by 26 percent. Stricter VOC controls would be required at compressor stations, storage tanks and processing plants. Limits would be set for air toxics emissions, and new and refractured wells would have to be equipped to separate methane and smog-forming VOCs from water when they flow back out of a fracked well, a process known as green completion.
The EPA calls the measures win-win, since the industry can sell the gas it captures or contains at an estimated net savings of some $30 million per year. The industry has so far been tight-lipped about its response, but it has, to some extent, stopped resisting regulation on principle. The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group, just proposed that the state require disclosure of frack-fluid chemical recipes. Companies supported a similar bill, which was passed by the Texas Legislature this year. Afterward, Matt Pitzarella, a Range Resources spokesman, told the Wall Street Journal that when it comes to fracking's safety: "We all learned ... you can't just say, 'Take our word for it.' " Political support for a more precautionary approach also appears to be building: A Department of Energy panel recently came out in favor of stricter federal air and water protections for gas production.
Some companies have already taken voluntary steps to improve air quality. Chip Minty, a spokesman for Devon Energy, says that where his company has retrofitted wells with tighter valves and used green completions, it's been profitable. "Generally speaking, we see green completions as an excellent opportunity to keep gas in the pipeline." And states such as Colorado and Wyoming require pollution controls beyond what's federally mandated. As a result, VOC and nitrogen oxide emissions in Sublette County declined by 28 and 24 percent, respectively, between 2008 and 2010.
Yet the ozone plague hasn't lifted. Nichols hopes for better results if the EPA rules succeed because they'll require more consistent controls. But if new development advances rapidly enough, he believes sullied air will remain. He'd also like to see agencies implement practices like phased development to limit how much new drilling happens at one time. Officials in Wyoming say there's no easy solution, though. "Trying to model how this ozone is being created has been very difficult," says Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Keith Guille.
In theory, development limits could become more common when the EPA updates national ozone standards, setting stricter criteria for air quality that force violating states to clear their smog. (The industry-specific air rules don't require producers or states to meet a certain clean-air threshold.) But getting there might take awhile. Just after releasing its oil and gas proposal, the agency missed a self-imposed deadline on ozone rules -- for the fourth time.
Why the foot-dragging? Most chalk it up to the influence of the "regulations are job-killers" mantra, along with uncertainty over just how much the emissions cuts may cost. If President Obama sets the standard in the EPA scientists' recommended range, many states would be in violation. With the presidential contest kicking into gear and the EPA already under fierce attack, the public-health benefits of cleaner air could depend, in part, on old-fashioned political calculus. As Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, recently told Politico: "(Obama) now has the choice: Jobs or no jobs, it's up to him."