Oil and gas exploration and production is rapidly expanding across the U.S. due to technological developments that have made extraction of previously untapped unconventional resources such as shale gas feasible.
In fact, shale gas production “has gone from a negligible amount just a few years ago to being almost 30% of total U.S. natural gas production.”
But national clean air standards covering these activities have not been updated since 1985 in one case and 1999 in another. They are limited, inadequate, and out of date, particularly given recent technological advances in this area.
This poses a serious problem, since exploration and production activities emit numerous hazardous air pollutants and other airborne contaminants that threaten human health and the environment. Communities across the country are paying the price, suffering from air pollution in the absence of protective, comprehensive standards.
In July, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new nationwide safeguards to reduce air pollution from upstream oil and gas production activities. Recently, the public was given a chance to express their opinions on the issue at three hearings held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Denver, Colorado, and Arlington, Texas. EDF testified at all three. (Public written comments will be accepted through November 30th and EPA is required to issue a final rule by February 2012. You can submit comments online, via fax or through the mail. In your correspondence, please be sure to reference Docket Number EPA–HQ–OAR–2010–0505; FRL–9456–2.)
I testified at the EPA hearing in Pittsburgh where compelling concerns were raised by many in the communities hard hit by air pollution impacts. People in communities across Pennsylvania expressed concern that adequate protection from dangerous pollution in their home state is simply not in place. Some pleaded with the EPA to finalize new standards, others expressed anger that EPA has not done so already, and many fear that the new standards won’t be tough enough to keep their families safe.
The individual who testified before me declared that when it comes to our health and that of our children, the costs of cleaning up harmful pollution should not factor into EPA’s decision-making. He got a standing ovation.
Of course, the hearing also featured industry representatives, some of whom echoed the position of the American Petroleum Institute (API) calling for more time to comment on the proposed standards and to delay their implementation.
Yet, the truth is that the proposed EPA rules will standardize many practices and technologies already being used in states such as Colorado and Wyoming, and elsewhere by natural gas companies. Further, these practices and technologies reduce gas losses, which results in greater recovery and sale of natural gas, and thus increased economic gains. The return on the initial investment for many of these practices is sometimes as short as a few months and almost always less than two years. In these tough economic times, it would seem wise to eliminate waste, save money, and reduce environmental impact.
Based on EPA estimates of natural gas losses, industry lost more than $1 billion in profits in 2009 due to venting, flaring and fugitive emissions. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), with supporting data from EPA, estimates that around 40% of natural gas estimated to be vented and flared on onshore federal leases could be economically captured with currently available control technologies. Recouping these losses could increase federal royalty payments by $23 million annually, at a time when revenue is desperately needed.
The industry can demonstrate their commitment to bringing natural gas to market in an environmentally sound way by using best practices, acknowledging the benefits of these safeguards, and being proactive in helping them get adopted.
And, while EPA’s proposed rules are a great start, there is room for improvement (for more details, see EDF’s preliminary analysis of the regulations). Bottom line: it is critical that stronger clean air standards move forward. They are vitally important to protect human health and the environment.
At the EPA hearing in Pittsburgh, the public demanded that EPA require industry to be more vigilant about health and safety, and reduce their environmental impact. Considering the potential increased revenue of capturing more gas, advocating for strong clean air rules makes both dollars and “sense.”