EPA asked to improve air standards at Marcellus Shale wells

Locals and environmentalists call for stronger regulations on emissions from oil and gas wells

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Don Hopey

September 28, 2011
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Some living near Marcellus Shale gas wells and environmental organizations called for fast adoption of strong, health-protective, air pollution emissions standards for oil and gas well drilling operations at a daylong U.S. Environmental Protection Agency public hearing in Pittsburgh Tuesday.

All but a dozen of the 108 speakers who signed up to speak at the hearing in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, voiced support for the new regulations that use proven technology and existing best practices within the drilling industry to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds by 95 percent from hydraulically fractured, or "fracked," wells and 25 percent industrywide.

The few drilling industry speakers asked for an additional two months to comment.

The proposed rules would also reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, by 3.4 million tons and air toxics, such as benzene, a human carcinogen, by 38,000 tons, or almost 30 percent.

"The EPA recognizes what many citizens living near oil and gas facilities have known for a long time: Fossil fuel production is dirty and harmful to health," said Nadia Steinzor of Earthworks, an national environmental organization. "The new rules would require companies to take measures to reduce emissions and require that they be held accountable for damage, while equally protecting all Americans from pollution."

Janet McIntyre, a resident of rural Butler County, testified that air emissions from 10 Marcellus Shale wells within a mile and a half of her home, plus a compressor station and three fracking waste holding ponds, have put into the air a bad smell that has affected 30 people in her neighborhood.

"If I go outside for more than five minutes, I get a severe headache and burning eyes and skin and a metallic taste on my lips," she said. "The air is chocking me and my neighbors, too. I feel it's coming from those fracking waste ponds around me."

Deborah Nardone, director of the Sierra Club's Natural Gas Reform Campaign, handed the three EPA hearing officials printed sets of 23,560 comments she said express concern about pollution from fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale play and other shale gas plays across the country.

"Areas of the country that have more fully developed shale plays are experiencing significant effects from the cumulative impacts of oil and gas production," Ms. Nardone said. "Here in Pennsylvania, as development and production grows at a rapid rate, air contaminants and their effect on human health are a grave concern. Action by the EPA is long overdue to help regulate and monitor the rogue natural gas industry."

David McCabe, an atmospheric scientist with the Clean Air Task Force, and Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, were among a chorus of speakers who said the EPA should strengthen the proposed rules by expanding its scope to new and existing well and compressor operations, target controls for methane capture and eliminate open-pit wastewater storage.

According to the EPA, the proposed rules would apply to emissions from more than 11,400 new oil and gas wells that are fracked annually and another 14,000 that are refracked, plus storage tanks and other equipment.

The EPA must finalize the rules, mandated by a court-ordered consent decree, by Feb. 28, 2012.

The proposed rules -- the first changes in air emissions regulations governing oil and gas well operations in decades -- would use existing technologies to reduce pollution from well drilling, leaking pipes, storage tanks and gas compressor stations that contributes to smog and can cause respiratory problems and cancer.

Those emissions control technologies, including capture of volatile organic compounds, benzene -- a known carcinogen -- and other gases now routinely vented into the atmosphere, are already employed by some companies and are required by some states, but not Pennsylvania.

Drilling industry speakers questioned the math for EPA projections that show implementation of the rules would not only reduce air pollution but result in a net savings for the industry of $30 million annually from selling the captured emissions.

Kathryn Klaber, president and executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group representing more than 250 companies operating in the Marcellus Shale play, emphasized the energy production and environmental benefits of cleaner-burning natural gas.

She also questioned the economic benefits the EPA's proposals would have on the industry, especially in Eastern Pennsylvania, where "dryer" Marcellus gas contains fewer volatile organic compounds.

Ms. Klaber also requested a delay or phase-in of required compliance with the proposed New Source Performance Standards.

"Considering the myriad of regulation changes and additions proposed with this rule-making," she said, "sufficient equipment, manpower and contractors likely will not be available to handle the inevitable rush."

Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said the EPA proposals are a "reasonable start" but require some changes to make them workable. He suggested that the final rules be delayed for a full year.

Pittsburgh city Councilman Doug Shields testified that the new federal rules are needed because local, state and federal governments have so far failed to exercise appropriate control of the industry, resulting in environmental pollution and health problems for some people living near gas wells.

"This proposed rule represents only a start in efforts to preserve our rights as citizens, to preserve our health, welfare and safety," Mr. Shields said. "I endorse it. I do want to inform you that you are a decade late in doing so and there is so much more to be done. The horse is already out of the barn."

The last two hearings on the EPA proposals are scheduled for Denver on Wednesday and Arlington, Texas, on Thursday.

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.

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