Some cities and states, including Colorado, already are requiring natural gas drillers to take steps to reduce toxic emissions in their fracking operations.
Now, drillers nationwide will be forced to join the effort after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced anew set of federal rules Wednesday.
“Natural gas is key to the country’s clean energy future,” and President Barack Obama has asked that the nation take advantage of its resources without compromising safety, said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, “These standards do just that.”
Environmental advocates praised the federal agency’s decision, which came in response to a court deadline to update standards under the Clean Air Act.
“We are pleased to see the EPA taking such strong steps for our health and welfare,” said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy issues coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Meanwhile, gas industry advocates, including Kathleen Sgamma, Western Energy Alliance vice president of government and public affairs, said the rules are misguided. The EPA has underestimated the costs of complying with the rules and overestimated the benefits. It could lead to higher energy costs for consumers, she said.
The new rules require natural-gas drillers conducting hydraulic fracturing operations to take steps almost immediately to cut the emission of gas, cancer-causing compounds and other toxic air pollutants.
Drillers have 60 days to begin using flaring techniques to burn off escaping gas and toxins during the fracking process. Also, by 2015 they must be using “green completion” equipment controls.
Green completion is an industry practice where drillers capture natural gas and other toxic emissions produced with the flow-back of water during fracking. The captured gases are put into the pipeline for resale with the other gas extracted during the operation, rather than allowing them to escape into the environment.
The practice already is required to some extent in some states and cities, including Colorado, through local regulations. Many operators around the country use green completion methods voluntarily, McCarthy said.
“In many ways, it’s business as usual for the industry,” she said, but it is time for the remaining drillers to catch up.
Christi Zeller, executive director of La Plata County Energy Council, said her organization is still working through the new federal rules to see how area drillers could be affected.
McCarthy said the regulations will protect public health and air quality, save drillers money and ensure “precious natural resources are not being wasted.”
About 13,000 wells are fracked in the U.S. each year and the EPA estimates drillers nationwide will reap a combined cost savings of $11 million to $19 million through the gas-capturing technology.
Harm to the environment and public health from the nation’s rapidly growing gas industry also will be markedly reduced by the rules, federal officials said.
Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, called the rules “a major American public health milestone” and said they promise safeguards for communities across the nation who are seeing their “clean air literally being fracked away.”