Strong Clean Air Standards For Natural Gas Leaks A Trifecta For America

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized important clean air measures to reduce harmful pollutants discharged from a variety of oil and natural gas activities.  Leaks, venting and flaring of natural gas from oil and gas activities contribute to ground-level ozone ("smog"), toxic air pollution such as benzene, and destabilizes the climate.  The limited federal standards that existed prior to these clean air measures covered only natural gas processing plants, and were most recently updated in part 13 years ago; other aspects of the air standards for the oil and gas industry are more than a quarter-century old.

These standards represent an important first step toward fulfilling the President’s commitment, in his State of the Union Address, to develop natural gas responsibly: “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years.  (Applause.)  And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy . . . . Because America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.” (emphasis added)

Likewise, at the President’s direction, Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu convened the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) Natural Gas Subcommittee, which included a diverse array of members with experience in the industry, government, and non-profit sectors.  The Subcommittee was tasked with identifying “immediate steps that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of fracking and to develop, within six months, consensus recommended advice to the agencies on practices for shale extraction to ensure the protection of public health and the environment." In its 90-day Report, the Subcommittee noted that it “supports adoption of emission standards for both new and existing sources for methane, air toxics, ozone-forming pollutants, and other major airborne contaminants resulting from natural gas exploration, production, transportation and distribution activities.”

Public health groups, including the American Lung Association, the American Thoracic Association, and others have support these common sense standards as these EPA clean air measures make important reductions in pollutants linked to asthma, cancer, and other illnesses.   In a recent letter to the President, these groups noted that “we see irrefutable evidence of serious damage to human health from air pollutants emitted during oil and natural gas production, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including air toxics such as benzene and formaldehyde, as well as increasing levels of ozone and particulate matter.”  As a result, the groups urged that “[t]he standards must be strengthened to keep up with the expansions and the new technology in the oil and gas industry.”    

EPA’s clean air measures achieve these health protective reductions by, in many cases, plugging leaks across the system.  One of the key protections under these national emission standards is the requirement to perform a reduced emission completion or “green completion.”  This, along with other standards in the rule, will reduce ozone-forming volatile organic compounds by an estimated 190,000 to 290,000 tons; reduce hazardous air pollutants like benzene by an estimated 12,000 to 20.000 tons; and reduce methane, a potent climate forcer by an estimated 1.0 to 1.7 million short tons [about 19 to 33 million tons of CO2 equivalent]. This results in saving both a domestic energy resource and saving producers money.  In fact, EPA estimates that the combined rules will yield a cost savings of $11 to $19 million in 2015, because the value of natural gas and condensate that will be recovered and sold will offset costs.

These common sense clean air measures are a win-win-win for a healthier environment, for our economy and for our energy security.  While there are additional opportunities remain to encourage safe, clean development of natural gas, EPA’s clean air measures are an important first step along this path.

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