EPA targeted its emissions rules on natural gas wells that are drilled using hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which uses water, chemicals and sand injected underground at high pressures to free trapped natural gas supplies.
Agency officials said they especially aimed to reduce emissions that are vented during a three- to 10-day period called "completion," when wells transition from drilling to gas production. During this process, "flowback" that contains fracturing fluids, water, and gases come to the surface at high velocity and volume.
Eventually, operators will have to reduce these emissions through so-called "green completion" in which gases are removed from the flowback, rather than being vented into the atmosphere.
EPA agreed to give industry until 2015 to design, construct, and purchase needed equipment for green completions, agency air quality chief Gina McCarthy told reporters during a telephone press conference. In the meantime, operators will generally be required to burn off gases with pollution-reducing flares, McCarthy said.
The final EPA action comes after a University of Colorado study, issued last month, that found potentially harmful levels of air pollution from natural gas operations. Over the last two years, a separate series of scientific papers have examined questions about the conventional wisdom that a switch to natural gas would really reduce greenhouse emissions and help combat global warming.
In West Virginia, the natural gas drilling law passed during a special session in December gives the state Department of Environmental Protection until July 2013 to complete a special study of air pollution from gas operations.
EPA said its new standards would reduce by nearly 95 percent the volatile organic compounds emitted from more than 11,000 newly fracked wells every year. EPA also said that natural gas emissions reductions would save companies $11 million to $19 million a year when the rules are fully implemented in 2015.
Also, EPA said that the rules would provide $440 million annually in "climate co-benefits," including the value of avoided health impacts, crop damage and damage to coastal properties from global warming.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.