EPA Announces New Fracking Regulations

FrackingWell, apparently today’s theme is going to be the environment, and the real differences in policy preferences between the two major political parties in the United States. Yesterday, the Democrats and the Obama administration’s EPA took a-something-is-better-than-nothing approach to hydraulic fracturing pollutant regulation.

The Obama administration took a heavy swing in the ongoing battle over fracking today by imposing new rules that would, for the first time, restrict the release of smog-causing pollutants from natural gas wells. But the law turns a blind eye to greenhouse gases released by fracking; the EPA admits fracking accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s overall methane (an even stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) emissions.

By 2015, all fracked wells will be required to implement “green completion” equipment, which catches toxic gases like benzene on its way out of the earth and into the atmosphere. But the rule does not directly limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

While the new rules will prevent toxic pollutants like Benzine from leaking into the air, reports, like the one above, say it will do little to prevent the largest and most dangerous pollutant from leaking into the atmosphere, methane. While other reports claim that the new regulations could reduce methane leakage by up to 25%.

The new rules seek foremost to cut down on cancer-causing chemicals released during hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” But the new regulations will have another benefit: They’ll reduce by 25 percent the amount of methane gas that escapes during fracking operations. This is critical, because methane is at the center of a growing debate whether natural gas really is a “cleaner” source of energy than coal.

The official EPA final rule, fact sheets, additional information, and summary can be found here and here. From the EPA press release:

“The president has been clear that he wants to continue to expand production of important domestic resources like natural gas, and today’s standard supports that goal while making sure these fuels are produced without threatening the health of the American people,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “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. 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.”

When natural gas is produced, some of the gas escapes the well and may not be captured by the producing company. These gases can pollute the air and as a result threaten public health. Consistent with states that have already put in place similar requirements, the updated EPA standards released today include the first federal air rules for natural gas wells that are hydraulically fractured, specifically requiring operators of new fractured natural gas wells to use cost-effective technologies and practices to capture natural gas that might otherwise escape the well, which can subsequently be sold. EPA’s analysis of the final rules shows that they are highly cost-effective, relying on widely available technologies and practices already deployed at approximately half of all fractured wells, and consistent with steps industry is already taking in many cases to capture additional natural gas for sale, offsetting the cost of compliance. Together these rules will result in $11 to $19 million in savings for industry each year. In addition to cutting pollution at the wellhead, EPA’s final standards also address emissions from storage tanks and other equipment.

While dangers to drinking water continue, and the relationship between earthquakes and fracking continues to be explored, the new regulations are certainly a step in the right direction. We will need to further restrict the emission of methane from well sites and prevent the contamination of groundwater supplies in the future. Several scientists are describing the new regulations as a floor rather than anything truly meaningful, but it is more than we could expect from a Republican administration.

“It sets a floor for what the industry needs to do,” said attorney Erik Schlenker-Goodrich of the Western Environmental Law Center. “The reality is we can do far better.”

Over the past few years, more information has come out about fracking’s potential harms to the environment and human health, particularly relating to the risk of groundwater contamination. In addition to the many potentially toxic components of the highly pressurized fluid injected into the ground during the natural gas drilling process, fracking can also release cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and greenhouse gases like methane into the air. The federal government has made moves to tighten regulations, and we’ve chronicled the history of those regulations.

The EPA’s new rules don’t cover most of those issues. Instead, they address a single problem with natural gas: air pollution.

Unfortunately, the only legitimate means of preventing contamination of drinking water and the emission of greenhouse gasses is to outlaw the practice altogether. While I am generally loathed to approach an issue of human health and environmental destruction pragmatically, I am nonetheless somewhat heartened by what appears to be a thoughtful analysis by the EPA. It is important that activists and members of the public continue to protest peacefully and write and call their representatives so that we can ultimately restrict this behavior, which will ultimately exacerbate climate change, inconvenience millions, and certainly lead to the deaths of thousands. Many of those affected continue to be in rural areas of little influence. The economic despair and dearth of good paying jobs wrought by the financial collapse has made it less troublesome for oil and gas companies to convince residents as well as state and local governments to permit fracking in their jurisdictions. It is also important that we work diligently to provide alternative employment in these areas.