Feds issue new standards for hydraulic fracturing

Oil and gas producers will have to start using green completion techniques on their wells by 2015 to reduce air pollution according to new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
BY JAY F. MARKS jmarks@opubco.com Published: April 19, 2012
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday issued the first federal clean air standards for hydraulic fracturing.

The new rules are meant to reduce harmful air pollution associated with oil and natural gas production.

Officials said the rules will not go into effect until 2015 to allow the industry to build up the necessary equipment to curb hazardous emissions, although many producers already use “green completion” methods to prevent gas from escaping their wells.

“Because they rely on technologies and practices that are already in use by many companies and required by some states, the standards are practical, flexible, affordable and they're achievable,” said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator of EPA's office of air and radiation.

Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said the rules accommodate oil and gas production.

“The industry has led efforts to reduce emissions by developing new technologies that were adopted in the rule,” Feldman said. “EPA has made some improvements in the rules that allow our companies to continue reducing emissions while producing the oil and natural gas our country needs.

“This is a large and complicated rule making for an industry so critical to the economy, and we need to thoroughly review the final rule to fully understand its impacts.”

EPA officials said existing techniques and equipment are capable of capturing up to 95 percent of the smog-producing methane released during the completion of oil and gas wells. Flaring, or burning, the gas also reduces emissions.

McCarthy said recovered gas can be sold to offset the cost of the pollution controls. She estimated the process can yield up to $19 million a year for the industry.

Devon Energy Corp., one of the pioneers of hydraulic fracturing, already uses green completions on most of its wells, but spokesman Chip Minty said federal regulators are overstating the technology's economic benefits.

“That is because the estimated emissions reduction from green completions is at least 1,000 percent and as much as 1,400 percent higher than actuality,” he said. “EPA staff arrived at these numbers through misusing a limited data set from the agency's Natural Gas STAR program and then drawing inaccurate conclusions by making false assumptions.”



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Air pollution rules lauded

Environmental groups applauded the EPA's new air pollution rules for the natural gas industry.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune called them “an important first step in closing loopholes for the natural gas industry.”

Brune said the rules address dangerous air quality levels in areas where hydraulic fracturing is used to produce oil and natural gas.

“The natural gas industry dumps massive amounts of air pollutants into our air every day, sickening families and children,” he said. “An industry that touts its ability to efficiently drill thousands of wells thousands of feet into the earth is crying wolf when it claims it can't build enough tanks to capture wellhead pollution.

“It's time we clean up the natural gas industry's dirty and reckless practices.”

David McCabe, senior scientist with the Clean Air Task Force, said the EPA rules should only be a beginning.

“They are a solid start, but we need to keep working to reduce pollution from the gas industry all the way from the well to the customer,” he said. “People who live near compressors and equipment already in use need to see their air cleaned up as well. Unfortunately, these rules won't do that.”

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