The EPA will announce the first federal rules against fracking. Curiously, however, the rules have nothing to do with the Clean Water Act, but seek to reduce the air pollution around fracking sites. This is also a problem, but most of the attention around the corrosive side effects of fracking has revolved around water contamination.
The rush to capture natural gas from hydraulic fracturing has led to giant compressor stations alongside backyard swing sets, drilling rigs in sight of front porches, and huge flares at gas wells alongside country roads.
Air pollution from fracking includes the fumes breathed in by people nearby, as well as smog spread over a wide region and emissions of the greenhouse gas methane.
On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce the first national rules to reduce air pollution at hydraulically fractured — fracked — wells and some other oil and gas industry operations. The agency estimated that the plan it proposed in July would reduce smog-forming, cancer-causing and climate-altering pollutants from the natural gas industry by about one-fourth.
The White House in recent weeks has been reviewing the EPA plan to consider possible changes, the normal procedure for regulations. Industry groups have lobbied for exemptions that would reduce the impact of the rule, saying the original requirements are too costly. Environmental and health advocates have been talking to White House officials as well, opposing the industry’s proposed changes.
So there’s a setup for at least some disappointment here. The larger issue is that I think most fracking critics would say that air pollution, while important, pales as a concern to contamination of the groundwater. That doesn’t take away from the need to reduce fumes arising from fracking. Clearly the families with the misfortune of living near fracking sites are living through a nightmare, made worse by the fact that their sites were fairly desolate a few years ago.
Specifically, the EPA proposed rule would require companies to capture the volatile organic compounds or methane gas released or burned off in the fracking process. The American Petroleum Institute wants to create a floor for VOCs so that they only have to clean up wells where the gas stream contains 10% or more of the compounds. Predictably, this would exempt most wells.
We do know that the Administration listens closely to industry trade reps about fracking, so we’ll have to see if they prevail on the rule today. This is merely about industry trying to stop a capital expense, and the EPA deciding whether to hinder that industry a bit or make sure people can breathe clean air.