The EPA Is Clamping Down On Gas Drilling Smog

fracking well

Photo: Flcikr/arimoore

By Dan VerganoUSA TODAY

Federal regulators issued first-ever air pollution rules for “fracking” wells on Wednesday, requiring that drillers burn or capture the gas and its smog-producing compounds released when the wells are first tapped.

Environmental Protection Agency official Gina McCarthy announced the long-anticipated rules, the first to cover some of the 13,000 wells drilled yearly nationwide that use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to collect natural gas and oil from deep shale layers.

Going into effect in 60 days, the rules cover the period when a well is first drilled when natural gas is still venting but before it begins actual production. In a compromise with the industry, regulators said the drillers can flare, or burn off, the gas for now, a process that can last for weeks. But starting in 2015 they would lose that option. Instead, they’ll be required to collect it — so-called green completion of new fracking wells.

“We wanted to encourage ‘green completions’ as soon as the technology can become widely available,” McCarthy said, explaining the 2015 “phase-in” of the rules. The announcement came in response to a lawsuit involving the Clean Air Act. EPA estimates the rules will cut 95(per cent) of the smog-related chemicals released by fracking wells, ones linked to asthma, respiratory ailments and cancer.

“On the whole, we’re pleased to see EPA has made improvements in the rules that we requested,” said Howard Feldman of the American Petroleum Institute, such as the two-year wait to end flaring. “We want to collect the natural gas; after all, that is the product.”

On the environmental side, Sierra Club chief Michael Brune called the rules “an important first step” to address fracking well pollution.

Half of all new fracking wells already collect gases from the initial drilling of the well,

McCarthy said, but only Colorado and Wyoming explicitly require such green completions.

Along with a warm winter, the fracking boom has helped lead to a sharp drop in natural gas prices in the past six months, from about $4 per thousand cubic feet to around $2.

“The rules seem like a step in the right direction,” said environmental engineer Allen Robinson of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “Other pollutants need to be looked at, particularly ones associated with ozone.”

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