The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released new rules on Wednesday placing significant emissions restrictions on the natural gas drilling process known as fracking. The new rules are designed to limit the amount of chemicals and other toxic substances that are released into the atmosphere during the drilling and completion of oil and natural gas wells. One of the primary targets of the rules is methane reduction.
The new rules will reduce by 25 % the amount of methane gas that escapes during fracking operations. Scientists have warned that the advantages natural gas provides through lower CO2 emissions might be negated by methane leaks that occur during the fracking and drilling process as well as during distribution, transportation and storage.
Many are weighing in on both sides of the debate regarding environmental regulation over domestic oil and natural gas drilling. One camp asserts that over-regulation will create unnecessary red tape that will slow down the current oil and natural gas drilling boom that is occurring in many previously economically depressed areas of the country. The other party to the debate believes the oil and gas industry has been allowed to police itself for too long and has failed to institute pollution controls that would pay for themselves through the capture and subsequent sale of excess gas. Although with gas prices currently at a ten-year low, it remains to be seen how long the payback would be to cover the cost of this equipment.
These new rules require the use of equipment that captures the waste gasses. This process is known as “green completion.” The Obama administration has delayed the requirement to utilize this process until 2015. This will allow oil and natural gas drilling companies to continue to burn-off or flare the excess gas until then. Gina McCarthy, Air-Quality Chief of the EPA, said that flaring natural gas, while not ideal, is almost as effective in reducing volatile organic compounds as the pollution control technology.
Howard Feldman, Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs of the American Petroleum Institute (API) has applauded the phase-in of these new regulations. The API has estimated that the regulations will affect more than 13,000 new wells each year at an approximate cost of $180,000 per well. The industry has argued that the phase-in of the rules is necessary because there currently is not enough equipment available to service the thousands of wells that are being drilled and fracked each year.
These new EPA rules do not address one of the most prominent criticisms of the fracking process, which is water contamination. The EPA has recently backed-off its prior contention that the fracking process can contaminate ground water and related drinking water supplies. The EPA is continuing to monitor the water both in Pennsylvania and Wyoming to confirm the safety of drinking water supplies. These new rules are a result of a court-ordered deadline the EPA was under as a result of being sued by various environmental groups over the enforcement of air-quality standards.
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