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Know the West

Air quality and all that gas


If you've been following the recent media blitz surrounding fracking -- where water, chemicals and sand are pumped at high pressure down a well to help release oil or natural gas -- you might think that concerns over the process are all about groundwater pollution. After all, thanks to the "Halliburton loophole," the process is not subject to the Safe Drinking Water Act, and in most states, companies aren't required to disclose the recipes of the chemical cocktails they're firing into the ground. The thing is, nobody's quite sure just HOW dangerous fracking really is to drinking water supplies because nobody's been able to nail the connection on a wide scale. The New York Times recently uncovered a single documented case of fracking contaminating someone's water well, something industry had insisted had never happened. Still, it isn't exactly enough of a smoking gun to implicate the entire practice. And though the Environmental Protection Agency is working on a  broad-scale study to assess fracking's impacts, with initial results due out in late 2012, it may not ultimately tell us that much either.

During all this justifiable handwringing over the unknowns, another aspect of natural gas development that is undoubtedly having effects on nearby residents' health has pretty much gone uncovered by major media outlets (at least by comparison). There is no question, for example, that exposure to ozone above certain levels can cause serious respiratory problems, or that above certain concentrations, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene can cause  cancer and other ailments. Nor is there any question that natural gas development, with all its diesel combustion, truck traffic, compressor stations, and occasional leaking pipes and wells, produces such pollutants (sometimes so much of them that rural areas near gaspatches end up with serious air quality problems on par with or worse than those in urban Los Angeles).

It comes as a relief, then, that the Environmental Protection Agency is positioning itself to do something significant (even if it was forced by a lawsuit). Last week, the agency proposed new air quality rules it is lauding as the first ever that cover fracking.

The rules primarily target VOCs and air toxics like benzene, aiming for a 25 percent and 30 percent overall reduction in emissions of each, respectively, once fully implemented.

For VOCs, the rules will accomplish this primarily by imposing tight standards on compression and storage facilities and requiring "green completions" of fracked wells, which the agency notes are already mandatory in Wyoming and Colorado and used voluntarily by some companies. The technique involves special equipment that captures and separates gas and liquid hydrocarbons  -- which can then be processed and sold -- brought up from a well during "flowback." That's when fluids used to frack the well return to the surface, a process which Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, one of the groups that sued the EPA in the first place, described to ProPublica this way:

"Just imagine opening a bottle of soda," he said. (But) instead of carbon dioxide, ... this soda can contain methane, volatile organic compounds and toxic chemicals such as benzene, which (now) generally spray into the environment."

With green completions mandatory, the agency claims, an estimated 95 percent of the nastier emissions from this process would be kept out of the air.

For air toxics, the agency is proposing to significantly drop its public health standard for allowable emission levels from transmission and storage facilities.

As a byproduct of these measures, the EPA expects a 26 percent overall reduction in emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And, the agency sunnily points out, even though the rules are projected to cost $754 million in 2015, the industry would be able to sell off captured gas and condensate at a cool $783 million annually.

What's not to like? Well, the gas industry doesn't seem thrilled with the proposal, but it also hasn't said too much against it yet. The American Petroleum Institute, a major industry lobbying group, is asking the agency to delay the rules beyond the current February 2012 deadline, and America's Natural Gas Alliance simply said it would study the rules and submit comments as necessary. If they do raise a stink, keep in mind that oil and gas trade groups often try to paint such regulations as job killers, even as drilling thrums along at a record pace.

Environmental groups seem delighted, of course, though they say the EPA should have gone farther, noting, for example, that the agency stopped short of imposing direct limits on methane emissions.

But before you get completely on the happy wagon, I have to point something out: As the EPA notes, Colorado and Wyoming already require green completions. And yet, they still have some of the country's most serious gaspatch air quality problems. Many of those are related to ozone, a byproduct of many industry processes. Right before the agency released the rules described in this blog, it announced it would be missing a federal court's July 29th deadline to issue a new ground-level ozone standard that is much more protective of human health than the current one.

So if you want to comment on EPA's fracking proposal (which goes by docket ID number EPA-HQ-OAR-2010-0505, instructions can be found at www.regulations.gov), you might also think about sending a letter to your U.S. Senator and Representative, asking them to put their support behind speedy and reasonable regulation of ozone pollution.

 Sarah Gilman is HCN's associate editor

Image of a natural gas drill rig courtesy of Flickr user calwest