The Future of Fracking: News Rules Target Air Emissions for Cleaner Natural Gas Production

Environmental Health Perspectives, July 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Future of Fracking: News Rules Target Air Emissions for Cleaner Natural Gas Production


Natural gas is lauded as a cleaner-burning fuel than either coal or oil, but getting the fuel out of the ground can be a dirty process, especially given the widespread adoption of the technology known as hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"), Concerns about toxic air emissions from previously unregulated fracking sites led to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announcement on 18 April 2012 of new and updated air pollution regulations for these facilities and certain other elements of oil and natural gas production and transmission. (1) Compliance with the new regulations is expected to result in major reductions in emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particularly From new fracked natural gas wells.

The rules were a hot topic nationally, drawing more than 156,000 comments after the proposed version was released in mid-2011. Under the final rules, companies have until January 2015 to fully phase in the control measures needed; by comparison, the initial proposal called for a 60-day phase-in for many major requirements. The EPA says about half of all new wells already use the equipment needed to capture the targeted emissions. (2)

Many environmental groups consider the new regulations an improvement over the existing situation, but they tend to be disappointed much more wasn't done. "This is quite a milestone," says Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program director for the advocacy group WildEarth Guardians, one of two groups that filed suit against the EPA in 2009 to force action on the issue. "But is the work done? No, of course not. Its a floor to build on, providing a minimal level of protection."

The oil and natural gas industry has its own concerns about the new rules but has indicated it can work with them. In a press release issued the day the rules were announced, Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said, "EPA has made some improvements in the rules that allow our companies to continue reducing emissions while producing the oil and natural gas our country needs." (3)

Extraction in the United States

Oil and natural gas drilling are getting easier in some ways, as success rates for finding reserves have increased from 75% in 1990 to 90% in 2009. But companies must drill deeper to extract the resources, with oil and gas drilling depths steadily increasing from averages of 4,841 feet in 1990 to 6,108 feet in 2009. Fracking enables drillers to liberate hard-to-reach oil and hydrocarbons from underground deposits. Nevertheless, average natural gas productivity per well, measured in volume, steadily declined by a total of 36% between 1990 and 2009, with oil wells following suit with a drop of 17%. (4) (Tables 2-4, 2-5, 2-6)

In 2009 there were an estimated 1.02 million onshore oil and natural gas wells in the United States, split roughly evenly between the two types. (4) The total is expected to steadily increase by about 17,000-35,000 natural gas wells and 9,000--10,000 oil wells per year between 2012 and 2035. (4) (Table 2-13) Connecting the wells, processing plants, distribution facilities, and customers are more than 1.5 million miles of pipelines. (4) (Table 2-8)

A number of primary and secondary pollutants are linked with this web of facilities. (4) One of them, methane, is over 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide ([CO.sub.2]) when emitted directly to the atmosphere. (5) Hydrogen sulfide and VOCs such as benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, mixed xylenes, n-hexane, carbonyl sulfide, ethylene glycol, and 2, 2, 4-trimethylpentane are classified by the EPA as hazardous air pollutants, or air toxics. (6) Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, fine particulate matter ([PM.sub.2.5]), and ground-level ozone are classified as criteria air pollutants. (7) Both classifications of pollutants cause adverse human health effects, but whereas criteria air pollutants are regulated by air quality standards that localities must achieve, hazardous air pollutants are regulated by requiring specific control technologies for the targeted emissions.

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