The Obama administration on Wednesday set the first-ever national standards to control air pollution from gas wells that are drilled using a method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but not without making concessions to the oil and gas industry.
President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address strongly backed natural gas drilling as a clean energy source, and recently announced an executive order calling for coordination of federal regulation to ease burdens on producers. But he has come under criticism by the industry and Republicans for policies they say discourage energy development.
Top EPA officials said Wednesday that the new regulations would ensure pollution is controlled without slowing natural gas production.
"By ensuring the capture of gases that were previously released to pollute our air and threaten our climate, these updated standards will protect our health, but also lead to more product for fuel suppliers to bring to market," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in a statement.
Much of the air pollution from fracked gas wells is vented when the well transitions from drilling to actual production, a three- to 10-day process which is referred to as "completion." An earlier version of the rule limiting air pollution from gas wells would have required companies to install pollution-reducing equipment immediately after the rule was finalized.
Drillers now will be given more than two years to employ technology to reduce emissions of smog- and soot-forming pollutants during that stage. The Environmental Protection Agency will require drillers to burn off gas in the meantime, an alternative that can release smog-forming nitrogen oxides, but will still slash overall emissions.
Industry groups had pushed hard for the delay, saying the equipment to reduce pollution at the wellhead during completion was not readily available. About 25,000 wells a year are being fracked, a process where water, chemicals and sand are injected at high pressure underground to release trapped natural gas.
Besides the new standards for oil and gas wells, the EPA also on Wednesday updated existing rules for natural gas processing plants, storage tanks and transmission lines that will reduce amounts of cancer-causing air pollution, such as benzene, and also reduce methane -- the main ingredient in natural gas, but also one of the most potent global warming gases.
There were other changes made since the EPA proposed the rule last July under a court order that stemmed from a lawsuit brought by environmental groups.
Wells drilled in low-pressure areas, such as coalbed methane reserves, would be exempt because they release less pollution during completion. And companies that choose to re-fracture wells using the pollution-reducing equipment prior to the January 2015 deadline would not be covered by other parts of the regulation.
Since companies could capture the natural gas and sell it, the EPA estimates that they would save about $11-$19 million a year starting in 2015.
The American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, said that much of the industry was already doing that.
"We don't need (the EPA) to come and tell our members we will save you money," said Howard Feldman, the institute's director of regulatory and scientific affairs. "Their business is natural gas. They get it that they are trying to capture as much gas as they can."
The reaction from environmental groups was mixed on Wednesday, in large part to the two-year delay on requiring companies to perform so-called green completions.
"This concession only promotes wasteful drilling," said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, an advocacy groups which sued the EPA in 2009 to force regulation. But, he said, "these rules promise to safeguard our communities and keep the dirty process of drilling in check."
Hydraulic fracturing is largely responsible for a natural gas drilling boom, but the technique has raised environmental concerns for its toll or air and water.
Last March, pollution from natural gas drilling in the Upper Green River Basin in western Wyoming triggered levels of ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, worse than those recorded in Los Angeles, one of the smoggiest cities in the U.S.
In Dish, Texas, a rural town northwest of Dallas, the state's environmental regulators detected levels of cancer-causing benzene, sometimes at levels dangerous to human health, likely coming from industry's 60 drilling wells, gas production pads and rigs, a treating facility and compressor station.
At the same time, a state study in Pennsylvania of air quality near Marcellus Shale drilling sites in four counties found no emissions at levels that would threaten the health of nearby residents or workers.