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EPA Slated to Protect Clean Air Nationwide from Oil and Gas Drilling

Agency to Sign Proposed Rules Pursuant to 2010 Settlement Agreement

Additional Contacts:

Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance New Mexico Energy Coordinator, (505) 325-6724

Michael Freeman, Earthjustice, (720) 989-6896 

Denver—Public health nationwide stands to get a major boost this week as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is slated to propose by tomorrow, July 28th, comprehensive updates to federal limits on air pollution from oil and gas drilling.

The expected proposal promises to target toxic air pollution, ensure cost-effective clean air technologies are used throughout the oil and gas industry, and strengthen a critical safety net for public health.  The proposal was spurred by a settlement agreement reached with WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, in a lawsuit where they were represented by the public interest law firm Earthjustice.  The settlement requires the EPA to follow through with its duties under the Clean Air Act to keep air quality regulations up-to-date.

It is expected that comprehensive updates to current clean air rules will be proposed.  Current regulations are woefully outdated, with some not updated since 1985, and fail to adequately protect public health and welfare.  In a 2010 presentation, the EPA pointed to a number of reasons to strengthen the current rules, including:

  • Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have enabled extraction of shale gas.
  • Gas reserves have gone from under 50 years to over 100 years.
  • The recent gas boom has heightened public concern over air impacts.
  • Winter ozone exceedances in western states have been linked to oil and gas drilling.
  • The oil and natural gas sector accounts for 23% of U.S. methane emissions.
  • Certain emissions are not addressed by existing federal air rules.

The EPA noted that of the 24 significant emission sources associated with oil and gas production, only six are covered by the current rules.

It is expected that the proposed rules will focus on volatile organic compound, or VOC, emissions, a toxic group of compounds that form smog and prioritize mobilizing the most cost-effective emission controls.  In many cases, compliance will actually save industry  money because reducing VOC emissions by stopping leaks and other fugitive emissions will result in recovering more natural gas and oil.

The proposal comes as oil and gas drilling is in many cases taking a tremendous toll on air quality.  A recent New York Times video highlights these impacts.

In western Colorado’s Garfield County for example, oil and gas drilling has increased by more than 132 percent since 2004, brining more than 7,000 new wells to the region. According to the state of Colorado emission inventory data, oil and gas operations in the County are responsible for more than 67% percent of all benzene emissions—a known carcinogen.  Studies by the state show that Garfield County residents face higher health risks because of this, in some cases facing an “unacceptable” cancer risk.  Unfortunately, current federal regulations fail to limit benzene and other toxic emissions from oil and gas operations in order to protect public health.

Nationwide, the proposal will be the first step toward protecting communities in a number of states with oil and gas drilling operations, including California, New York, Pennsylvania, Alaska, and Texas.  Because state air quality regulations must at least be as stringent as federal regulations, the final rules will ultimately provide a critical important safety net for public health.

Background Details

  • In response to a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance—two American West-based environmental organizations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency committed to reviewing and updating Clean Air act regulations for the oil and natural gas production sector by July 28, 2011 and to finalize these updates by January 28, 2012.
  • The first set of regulations are called “New Source Performance Standards,” and ensure that the latest technology is used to reduce any pollutants that endanger public health and welfare, such as hydrogen sulfide, smog forming nitrogen oxide gases, and greenhouse gases like methane. Under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act, New Source Performance Standards must be reviewed and updated every eight years. Standards related to the oil and gas industry were first promulgated in 1985 and only applied to natural gas processing plants.  They have not been updated since.
  • The second regulations are called “Maximum Achievable Control Technology” standards, and ensure that the most effective technology available is used to limit toxic air emissions—such as benzene. Under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act, Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards must be reviewed and updated every eight years. Standards related to oil and gas drilling were first promulgated in 1999 and have not been updated since.
  • The third regulations are called “Residual Risk” standards, and ensure that toxic air emissions are reduced to fully safeguard public health. These standards address any “residual risk” to public health that exists after Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards are adopted. Under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act, Residual Risk standards must be issued within eight years after Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards. It has been more then 10 years, yet currently there are no residual risk standards in place to protect public health.
  • EPA has also indicated it may promulgate “Control Technique Guidelines” for the oil and gas industry.  Under Section 182 of the Clean Air Act, the EPA may develop Control Technique Guidelines to provide guidance to states on how to reduce VOCs in order to meet national ambient air quality standards for ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog.


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