EPA finalizes first-ever air pollution rules for natural-gas 'fracking'

The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled first-ever regulations Wednesday aimed at reducing toxic air pollution from the natural-gas drilling practice known as “fracking.”

The regulations — which would also target emissions from compressors, oil storage tanks and other oil-and-gas sector equipment — would cut 95 percent of smog-forming and toxic emissions from wells developed with fracking, EPA said.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves high-pressure injections of sand, water and chemicals that allow natural gas trapped in rock formations to flow.

The final regulations have been the subject of an aggressive public relations and lobbying campaign in recent months, with industry groups arguing they will impose huge burdens on companies, and green groups countering that they are essential to protect public health.

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EPA altered the final regulations to offer a key concession to the natural-gas industry, which had raised concerns about being able to comply with the proposed regulations issued last year.

Under the final rules, companies can comply with the standards until 2015 using flaring, which reduces harmful emissions by burning off the gases that would otherwise escape during natural-gas drilling. After 2015, companies will need to install so-called “green completions,” which are technologies that capture harmful emissions.

“Green completions” are more effective at reducing harmful emissions, but industry has warned that companies will have difficulty accessing the technology in the coming years.

EPA cast the regulations Wednesday as “cost-effective” and achievable, adding that companies will be able to sell natural gas captured using “green completions.” The agency estimates that the regulations will save the industry $11 to $19 million per year.

"By ensuring the capture of gases that were previously released to pollute our air and threaten our climate, these updated standards will not only protect our health, but also lead to more product for fuel suppliers to bring to market,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement. “They're an important step toward tapping future energy supplies without exposing American families and children to dangerous health threats in the air they breathe.”

The regulations unveiled Wednesday come at a time when the Obama administration, stung by GOP attacks on the president’s energy policies, is seeking to encourage expanded natural-gas development, while also improving federal oversight of fracking.

President Obama, for example, used his State of the Union address to tout the importance of natural gas. At the same time, the Interior Department is slated to soon unveil regulations for fracking on public land, and EPA is conducting a study on the public health effects of the practice.

In an effort to reassure industry groups that are concerned about overlapping federal regulations, Obama announced the formation of a high-level task force last week charged with coordinating oversight of fracking.

The executive order forming the task force sought to strike a balance between safety and expanded development.

“[I]t is vital that we take full advantage of our natural gas resources, while giving American families and communities confidence that natural and cultural resources, air and water quality, and public health and safety will not be compromised,” the order said.

Fracking, combined with advances in horizontal drilling technology, has enabled major growth in natural-gas production from shale in recent years, but brought along with it environmental concerns. Critics of the drilling method have warned chemicals used during fracking can pollute groundwater.

The federal Energy Information Administration estimates that shale gas will grow from 23 percent of U.S. gas production in 2010 to 49 percent in 2035. EIA, in a report earlier this year, projected that total U.S. gas production will rise from roughly 22 trillion cubic feet in 2010 to around 28 trillion cubic feet in 2035.

Industry groups praised EPA Wednesday for altering the final regulations.

“Overall, we think EPA has made a constructive change to the proposal in the final rule,” said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute.

“There are some things that we did not get in the rule,” he added, pointing to the industry request to exempt sources in which less than 10 percent of their total pollution comes from “volatile organic compounds.” Environmental groups said such an exemption would “gut” the standards.

Environmental groups quickly applauded the standards, while calling on the administration to do more to increase oversight of fracking.

“These first-ever EPA limits on dangerous air pollution from natural gas fracking wells are a critical step toward protecting our kids, our communities, and our planet,” Meleah Geertsma, an attorney in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air program, said in a statement.

“But to fulfill President Obama’s State of the Union pledge to develop these resources ‘without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk,’ the EPA needs to do more to protect people living near oil and gas production facilities.”

EPA air chief Gina McCarthy, on a conference call with reporters Wednesday, insisted that the changes to the final regulations were based on data collected by the agency and the more than 150,000 public comments on the regulations, not politics.

“The idea of a phased approach was something that the staff had been considering on the basis of the record for quite some time,” said McCarthy, the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

“It wasn’t politically motivated and it wasn’t a decision that started over the past couple of weeks. … It was certainly something that was on our radar screen for a while.”