EPA’s Proposed New Air Pollution Rules for Hydraulic Fracturing in the Oil and Gas Industries

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday released a 604-page set of rule changes that will force oil and gas drillers that use hydraulic fracturing to use new or improved processes and equipment in an attempt to cut the level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other air pollutants they say are emitted during the completion of new and modified hydraulically fractured wells. There are some 25,000 oil and gas wells that are fracked on land in the U.S. each year, so this is will have a major impact on the entire industry.

The new rules will cost the industry 3/4 of a billion dollars by 2015 according to EPA estimates, although they also say the rule changes mean that more methane (natural gas) will not escape into the atmosphere as it is now, and therefore the cost of complying with the new rules will be offset by extra revenue from selling the gas that doesn’t disappear into the atmosphere—that is, “it all comes out in the wash” and evens out. (Gotta love EPA math.)

The EPA will host several public hearings on the proposed rule changes before making them final by Feb. 28, 2012, a court-ordered date. The EPA is being “forced” to regulate the oil and gas industry by a court order originating from a lawsuit in January 2009 when WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance sued EPA, alleging that the Agency had failed to review the new source performance standards and air toxic standards for the oil and natural gas industry.

Among the items in the proposed EPA rule changes for hydraulic fracturing include:

  • Forces drillers to use special equipment to separate gas and liquid hydrocarbons from the flowback that comes from the well as it is being prepared for production (something called a “green completion”).
  • For those operating compressor plants to move gas along pipelines, centrifugal compressors would have to be equipped with new dry seal systems and reciprocating compressors will need new rod packing systems every 26,000 hours of operation.
  • Pneumatic controllers–automated instruments used for maintaining liquid level, pressure, and temperature at wells, compressor stations and in other places–are usually powered by natural gas. They either need to be replaced by non-natural gas controllers or limited to no more than emitting six cubic feet of gas per hour of operation.
  • New leak detection equipment must be installed at gas processing plants.
  • Glycol dehydrators, which remove excess water vapor from natural gas, can emit benzene (a VOC). An existing rule allows large dehydrators up to one ton per year of benzene emissions. That would be eliminated under the new rules—dehydrators would have to achieve a 95% reduction in their benzene emissions. “Small” dehydrators will also need to reduce emissions.

There’s plenty more. MDN is embedding the EPA’s 8-page fact sheet below. The summary of the proposed changes begins on page 3 of the fact sheet. And below that the full 604-page set of rule changes is embedded.

As with most things the government regulates, these changes are complex and will cost the industry (and ultimately consumers who buy the natural gas) more money. Those who support the new rules will say it will clean the air around gas drilling fields in places like Wyoming where smog is being caused by thousands of gas drilling operations—and it will prevent it from happening in places like the relatively new Marcellus drilling area. Ultimately it will “save lives”—that’s the rationale. Those who oppose it say these rules are difficult at best (and perhaps even impossible) for drillers to comply with, and that the EPA is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist (recent air tests in PA show little or no air pollution from drilling).

Who’s right? You decide.

*EPA Press Release (Jul 28, 2011) – EPA Proposes Air Pollution Standards for Oil and Gas Production/Cost-effective, flexible standards rely on operators’ ability to capture and sell natural gas that currently escapes, threatens air quality