Journalism in the Public Interest

The EPA’s First Fracking Rules — Limited and Delayed

The nation’s first ever standards for fracking, which apply to air pollution and not groundwater, won’t take full effect until 2015.

Men with Cabot Oil & Gas work on a natural-gas valve at a hydraulic fracturing site on Jan. 18, 2012, in South Montrose, Pa. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

 The Environmental Protection Agency issued the first-ever national air pollution regulations for fracking on Wednesday. First proposed in July 2011, the final rules have been welcomed by environmental groups as a much-needed initial move in reducing pollution and protecting public health from the toxic chemicals involved in the oil and natural gas drilling process. But many cautioned it was just a first step.

“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.

“These rules do not resolve chronic water, public health and other problems associated with fracking and natural gas,” Schlenker-Goodrich said.

The agency is actually barred from regulating the impact of fracking on groundwater because, in 2005, Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act. Congressional proposals to give the EPA more oversight have so far failed.

With the new rules on air pollution, the EPA rejected an industry request to exempt some wells with low emissions of toxic compounds but did give drilling companies more time to comply. Notably, the final version provides a two-and-a-half-year transition period (rather than the 60 days in the original proposal) that gives drilling companies until 2015 to comply with the strictest regulations.


The industry lobbied hard for the delay, and its reaction to the rules have been mixed.

A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil industry trade group, said it is still reviewing the new rules but said it's happy with changes from the original proposal that will allow companies to “continue reducing emissions while producing the oil and natural gas our country needs.” Another industry group told The New York Times that the rules are too strict and could “make exploring in new areas cost-prohibitive.”

A key rule targets one large source of air pollution — the burst of gas released during the first few days after a well is first tapped but before production begins. The EPA requires that companies start using “green completions,” a technology that captures the released gas and fumes in tanks and transports them via pipelines to be sold as fuel. (The Natural Resources Defense Council has a good breakdown of the process).

Many drilling companies already use green-completion systems. One natural-gas company recently told Bloomberg that the system doesn’t cost the company “any more than just venting the gas into the atmosphere.” The EPA says that once companies buy the necessary equipment to separate and collect the released gas, they could actually make up to $19 million a year selling the captured gas.

“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 P. Jackson said in a statement.

For the next two and a half years, in addition to trapping the gas, companies are allowed to burn off, or “flare,” the excess gas, which reduces air toxins but is wasteful because the gas can’t be resold. Peter Zalzal of the Environmental Defense Fund said the EPA rules give companies an incentive to adopt the green-completion technology instead of flaring.

“Limited” protection of the American environment and people…sad, because Big Carbon has pulled out all of the stops to build LNG export facilities in order to strip the American people of any energy “bonanza” as a result of fracking.

So if you were celebrating the approaching rebuilding of America and renewal of her future because cheap energy from shale would enhance America’s competitiveness in spite of the rigged currency rates and terminally deficient environmental laws offshore, you can stop now.

Mayor Calvin Tilman of Dish Texas near Forth Worth has included in his lectures for years that the oil and gas industry could capture a lot more of their fugative gases and sell those gases instead of polluting the air with them.  The industry was not interested he said because it would require three years to break even , installing the necessary equipment and earning the profit—industry cannot be bothered with a three year turn around while improving our atmosphere and making a dent in global warming by capturing the methane that is 20 times as potent as CO2 in causing greenhouse warming of the planet.

That shows you that this industry must be regulated and that this regulation can only happen if we kick out the majority of tea party Republicans who skedaddled into office in 2010 and hopefully will be defeated in 2012 .

There are too many people out there who have been persuaded by the defeatist election propaganda that they do not want to vote at all—and that their vote will not make a difference—we need to inspire people just like Mayor Calivn Tillman inspired me and others.

Stephanie Palmer

April 20, 2012, 7:38 a.m.

There is something seriously wrong with anyone who fails to give the EPA tremendous authority to regulate drinking water.  Anyone who fails to see the importance of drinking water can’t actually be a human being. Human beings require brains in order to exist. How can the Congress not see that this idiotic unthoughtful stance will be passed on to their children, their grandchildren, their great grandchildren… goes on and on.  Election day is November 6th.  There is NO EXCUSE for failing to give the EPA the authority for controlling the ground water.  When you think about it, the people who would deny the authority are pretty much like that guy in Sweden who said he wanted to kill more people.  A good analogy if I say so myself.

Actually, Stephanie, ask people near Superfund sites how the EPA uses what power it has.  They talk a good game (sometimes), but at the end of the day, they’re not much different with a “nothing to see here” attitude.

Someone here, months back, recommended “Inconclusive by Design,” and it really should be required reading.  It’s a bit dryly academic, but it’s a free PDF download, about eighty pages, and a relatively quick read.

The capsule summary is that the EPA (and related agencies) use statistical models that only work in city-like populations and exclude sick people and people who moved away from exposure studies.  The result is that almost every study comes out to not show a significant link between your health and…well, anything.

Obama drops ball again.  He has the power with all the agencies in the govt now to do anything. nothing gets done because of lobbyists, greed, and the clintons moved the democrats so far to the right because of the way gingrich stopped everything, and the gop f’d up the obama care plan, along with greedy senators who wouldnt vote for it unless they got major pork.  amerika as usual.  the atmosphere is going to kill us all, so what? the ceo’s of bp will be dead, they don’t care if their great grand kids have three eyes. they all need to be shot right in the forehead in order to stop that third eye from growing.  even ron paul, only guy with integrity, has his head so far up his butt he wants to eliminate the epa and all other federal regs. this is a PRIME example of WHY the govt HAS to regulate certain businesses. other than banking, there is no other biz that needs regulating so badly

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