Hydraulic fracturing, better-known as "fracking," has transformed U.S. energy production in recent years. Americans haven't seen a domestic energy boom like this in decades, and it's not limited to one state or region — fracking has spread rapidly across the country in just a few years, from Texas to New York to North Dakota.
But while fracking has unlocked a vast cache of fossil fuels, it has also opened a Pandora's box in many places. That's because, in addition to cheap natural gas, fracking also produces airborne emissions of methane as well as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and VOCs are a diverse group of chemicals that contribute to smog and can cause cancer in humans.
(Critics say fracking contaminates groundwater, too, although that has been harder to prove. Underground injection of its wastewater has also been tied to earthquakes.)
In hopes of defusing the national tension over fracking's pros and cons, the Obama administration made a cautious attempt this week to please both the energy industry and environmentalists. And somehow, against all odds, it seems to be working.
The EPA on Wednesday issued its first-ever clean air protections for fracking, finalizing an earlier set of rules after listening to comments from industry, environmentalists and the public at large. The new rules were dictated by the Clean Air Act and mandated by a court deadline, yet they haven't drawn the reaction you might expect for an agency backed into a corner. Despite all the emotions involved, the EPA's balancing act hasn't sparked a controversy — not everyone is thrilled, but no one seems outraged, either.
Consider the following statements, released this week by two very different groups:
"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." — Howard Feldman, American Petroleum Institute
"There is more work to be done to protect Americans living near oil and gas fields from cancer and other unacceptable health threats, but this rule from EPA is an important first step."
— Trip Van Noppen, Earthjustice
That almost sounds like agreement. It's actually something short of that, since industry and environmental groups still don't see eye-to-eye on the risks and benefits of fracking, but they do seem to recognize that some kind of compromise is inevitable. As EPA air quality chief Gina McCarthy told reporters this week, the goal of these updated standards is to rein in toxins "without slowing down natural gas production."
The new rules will regulate VOCs from fracking — something long-sought by environmentalists and public-health advocates — but the EPA will also oblige the gas industry by delaying implementation of the rules until 2015. In the meantime, all U.S. gas producers will be required to at least burn off their excess gas, which is wasteful but does cut down on dangerous pollutants by roughly 95 percent. After this three-year grace period, they'll have to start a process known as "green completion," which involves capturing leaked and vented gas so it can be resold.
Environmentalists had wanted green completions to be mandatory right away, and an earlier draft of the EPA rules would have done that. The agency ended up bending to industry pressure, though, moving back the compliance date to 2015. But it declined another industry request that would have ceded its clean-air authority to states.
"The president 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," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a news release. "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. 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."
Many gas companies already capture their excess gas, and some states even legally require it, so these rules won't have the same impact everywhere. But enough drillers still waste methane that, according to EPA estimates, mandatory conservation efforts will save the industry $11 million to $19 million once the rules take effect in 2015.
And by reducing methane levels in the atmosphere, the EPA also calculates the new rules will yield "climate co-benefits" of $440 million per year by 2015. It outlines the following estimates for annual reductions of air pollutants by 2015:
- VOCs: 190,000 to 290,000 tons
- Air toxics: 12,000 to 20,000 tons
- Methane: 1 million to 1.7 million short tons
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