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EPA proposes air pollution rules for fracking

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration on Thursday proposed for the first time to require the oil and gas industry to control certain air emissions at its wells, in a move aimed at reducing impacts from the growing use of large-scale "fracking" operations.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials issued their draft regulations to comply with a legal settlement reached after environmental groups sued EPA for not updating its standards to keep pace with advancements in industry technologies.

"This administration has been clear that natural gas is a key component of our clean energy future, and the steps announced today will help ensure responsible production of this domestic energy source," said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation. "Reducing these emissions will help cut toxic pollution that can increase cancer risks and smog that can cause asthma attacks and premature death -- all while giving these operators additional product to bring to market."

EPA said its proposal is based on "proven technology and best practices," and could largely be met by capturing natural gas that currently escapes into the air, resulting in more efficient operations along with less air pollution.

The EPA proposal actually includes four new rules: Performance standards to limit emissions from new wells of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs; performance standards for sulfur dioxide emissions; air toxics regulation for oil and natural gas production; and an air toxics standard for natural gas transmission and storage. EPA issued a news release and provided "fact sheets" and summaries, but did not immediately provide reporters or the public with a copy of its actual regulatory language.

Current "new source performance standards" for the industry govern only natural gas processing plants. The new proposal would cover wells, compressors, storage vessels, and other equipment, EPA said.

"EPA's analysis of the proposed changes, which also include requirements for storage tanks and other equipment, show they are highly cost-effective, with a net savings to the industry of tens of millions of dollars annually from the value of natural gas that would no longer escape to the air," EPA said in a statement.

The EPA action comes as West Virginia officials work on emergency regulations to govern Marcellus Shale drilling operations in response to an executive order issued July 12 by Senate President, acting as governor, Earl Ray Tomblin.

Tomblin officials have said that gas industry officials acted as "consultants and experts" as the administration developed its regulatory plan, but have refused to make public any documents or correspondence about that industry input.

Some West Virginia residents have expressed concern about air emissions from drilling operations, but Tomblin's executive order contains no requirement for the state Department of Environmental Protection to institute any new restrictions on those emissions. The only mention of air emissions in the order is as part of a mandate for DEP to "evaluate its overall regulatory authority over drilling activities."

The western groups WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, represented by Earthjustice, sued EPA 2 1/2 years ago. They argued agency officials had not updated air pollution standards governing oil and gas for more than 20 years. The few existing regulations did not limit certain important toxic pollutants and did not address greenhouse gases, the suit alleged.

Under a settlement with the groups, EPA was required to propose new rules by Thursday and to finalize those rules by Feb. 28, 2012.

The American Petroleum Institute on Thursday issued a last-minute demand that EPA delay the rules to give the industry more time to weigh in on the requirements.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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