Report: Gaps found in EPA drilling emissions reporting

Many of the problems Elkins discovered were related to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The oil-and-gas industry has credited that drilling practice with driving the domestic energy boom.

The method involves injecting a high-pressure cocktail of water, sand and chemicals into tight-rock formations to tap oil and gas deposits trapped deep underground.

Emissions from some equipment and portions of the fracking process have gone unreported, Elkins said.

For emissions evaluating tools that do exist, the inspector general said many “are of questionable quality because they are based on limited and/or low quality data.”

Still, the report noted EPA is in the process of remedying the situation. It said new regulations for the oil-and-gas sector require facility owners and operators to file source data directly with the agency.

“We have made substantial progress and have begun incorporating into our regulations requirements that affected sources submit certain data to us electronically,” Gina McCarthy, EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, and Lek Kadeli, EPA Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development, said in comments attached to the report.

Those regulations, rolled out during President Obama’s first term, are designed to curb pollution and gases related to soot and smog from gas well sites.

Green groups have pushed the White House to further regulate fracking. They are concerned about fugitive methane emissions and groundwater contamination linked to the practice.

The oil-and-gas industry has argued EPA has overstated methane leakage from fracking, and also contends the practice does not pollute drinking water.

It has pushed back against proposed White House regulations for fracking on federal lands, which the administration is in the process of revising. The industry calls the federal measures duplicative of state rules and could slow drilling.

Drillers have produced at a frenetic speed in recent years — and the report said EPA’s emissions reporting regime was unprepared.

The report noted the number of gas producing wells spiked 76 percent between 1992 and 2010, adding about 11,000 wells annually during that period.

And while onshore crude oil dropped during that timeframe, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts oil and gas production would jump 30 percent and 18 percent, respectively, between 2009 and 2025 — largely thanks to fracking.

The report said EPA must resolve staffing issues to keep pace with the oil-and-gas industry’s growth.

It said the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards allocated an estimated $2.7 million and five full-time equivalent employees annually to oil and gas production between fiscal 2008 and 2011.

During that same period, the Office of Research and Development chipped in $455,000 and half of a full-time equivalent employee per year. The Office of Atmospheric Programs also contributed, though it did not provide specific figures directly related to oil-and-gas production emissions.

The report also said EPA needs to better coordinate data collection across its offices.

It acknowledged, however, that EPA and the Energy and Interior departments signed an April 2012 agreement to work on “high priority research questions associated with the development of unconventional shale gas and tight oil resources.”