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EPA to Gas Industry: Clean Up Your Act! Texas Congressman/Gas Friend Joe Barton Balks

April 19, 2012

 

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer
A gas drilling rig operated by Fort Worth-based Union Drilling sits near Bryant Irvin Road and State Highway 183 in West Fort Worth.
 

By RANDY LEE LOFTIS

Environmental Writer

rloftis@dallasnews.com

Published: 18 April 2012 11:07 PM

 

Natural-gas companies in North Texas’ Barnett Shale and elsewhere in the country can no longer let invisible clouds of smog-causing air pollution escape from the wells they complete with hydraulic fracturing, the EPA said Wednesday.

Some gas companies already capture those emissions from fracking and say they’ve made money by selling gas that otherwise would float away in the air.

About half of the fracked wells nationwide have emissions-trapping technology installed that meets the goal of a 95 percent emissions cut, the Environmental Protection Agency said.

The Barnett Shale gas field has close to 16,000 wells, with more than half of them drilled since 2008, according to recent figures from the Texas Railroad Commission. That means the EPA rule carries big implications for the regional economy, from the cost of pollution controls to the potential sales of captured gas.

Emissions from fracking also affect the region’s most stubborn environmental problem — smog. As gas production has grown, its emissions may influence the clean-air strategy for a huge and still-expanding metro area.

The nation’s biggest oil and gas trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, opposed the fracking and air pollution rule as first proposed, saying it would be too expensive, but sounded conciliatory after seeing the final version.

However, Rep. Joe Barton , a Republican from Arlington, said he wants Congress to block the rule.

The regulation is part of a suite of measures the EPA proposed last year to cut emissions from a range of oil and gas activities. Wednesday’s announcement makes the fracking rule official, but challenges in the federal courts are likely.

By 2015, all newly fracked wells or those where fracking is done a second time would have to capture emissions from the process.

The new rule on fracking and air pollution does not restrict the actual practice of fracking a gas well — forcing millions of gallons of chemically treated water underground to break up rock and free the gas. The EPA is doing a separate study of whether fracking harms groundwater supplies.

In Washington, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said Wednesday that President Barack Obama “has been clear that he wants to continue to expand production of important domestic resources like natural gas, and today’s standard supports that goal while making sure these fuels are produced without threatening the health of the American people.”

“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,” Jackson said.

“They’re an important step toward tapping future energy supplies without exposing American families and children to dangerous health threats in the air they breathe.”

Barton, a past chairman of the House energy and commerce committee and a frequent opponent of the Obama administration, called the rule politically motivated.

“The Obama administration says publicly that they are in favor of energy production, then [uses] rules and regulations to stifle development,” Barton said.

“Instead of doing proper research and relying on sound science, the EPA is playing politics with our nation’s energy supply and economy.”

But the American Petroleum Institute, which often clashes with the administration over energy and environmental policies, said “constructive changes” the EPA made to the rule before finalizing it would accommodate both oil and gas production and cleaner air.

“The industry has led efforts to reduce emissions by developing new technologies that were adopted in the rule,” said spokesman Howard Feldman.

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

The fracking rule is expected to curb a relatively new source of smog-causing pollution in North Texas, which has seen some clean-air success but still does not meet either the existing federal health standard or tighter limits expected in the future.

Tougher federal mandates for vehicle emissions and cleaner fuels, combined with Texas regulations and volunteer incentive programs, have brought North Texas smog levels down over the past decade.

But smog-causing emissions from natural-gas operations may have partly offset the gains. While experts debate how much they affect regional air quality, many now say the unchecked added pollution could doom hopes of continued progress.

Gas operations in North Texas emit about 113 tons of smog-causing volatile organic compounds into the air every day, on par with the total from all the cars, trucks, buses, construction machinery, locomotives and forklifts in the region, according to the latest clean-air plan from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Volatile organics are a large group of petroleum-related compounds. Think of fumes from paint thinner.

TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said the state agency believes that volatile organic compound emissions from the Barnett Shale have little impact on Dallas-Fort Worth smog levels because most gas production is west of Fort Worth and prevailing winds carry its pollution away from the urbanized area.

The state agency’s clean-air plans for North Texas focus mainly on another smog-causing emission, nitrogen oxides, found in exhausts from vehicles and industries. Reducing nitrogen oxides is the most effective way to clean up the regional air, the TCEQ says.

Critics say Barnett Shale operations have boosted emissions of volatile organic compounds so much that they might be changing the dynamics of how smog forms in the local atmosphere.

In a January 2009 report, Al Armendariz, then an environmental engineering professor at Southern Methodist University, reviewed emissions from Barnett Shale activities and urged the adoption of already-available clean-air technology, including the measures the EPA has now mandated.

Nine months after that report, Obama appointed Armendariz as the EPA’s regional administrator in Dallas, a post he still holds.

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