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Environmental Groups: New Fracking Rules Fall Short

EPA's rules on fracking still leave public health, communities at risk

- Common Dreams staff

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its first regulations on air pollution from hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, on Wednesday, but environmental groups say the rules fall short.   The groups say the regulations fail to protect public health by ignoring the many environmental hazards associated with fracking, and say the administration caved to industry demands by allowing fracking companies to continue releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, until 2015. 

Stop Fracking Now!(photo: William Avery Hudson)

"These rules do not resolve chronic water, public health, and other problems associated with fracking and natural gas," said attorney Erik Schlenker-Goodrich of the Western Environmental Law Center.

“These first-ever EPA limits on dangerous air pollution from natural gas fracking wells are a critical step toward protecting our kids, our communities, and our planet,” said Meleah Geertsma, an attorney in Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air program. “But to fulfill President Obama’s State of the Union pledge to develop these resources ‘without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk,’ the EPA needs to do more to protect people living near oil and gas production facilities.”

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman’s wrote on NRDC's Switchboard blog that while the rules are an improvement, the "EPA backpedaled on protections from cancer causing benzene emissions and will continue to allow a loophole that puts communities at risk."

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Akron Beacon Journal: U.S. EPA adopts first air rules on fracking, but drillers have until 2015 to comply

The new safeguards, when fully implemented, will cut emissions of volatile organic compounds from drilling by nearly 25 percent and cut VOC emissions from new and modified fracked wells by almost 95 percent, the EPA said.

The agency said the new limits would reduce VOC emissions from drilling by 190,000 to 290,000 tons a year, and cancer-causing benzene levels would be cut by 12,000 to 20,000 tons a year.

It also will reduce escaped methane, the key component of natural gas and a potent global warming gas, by 1 million to 1.7 million tons a year, the agency said.

Such chemicals — seen as a growing problem — produce unhealthy smog, put health-threatening toxics, including hexane and formaldehyde, into the air and contribute to global warming.

The new rules are a first effort by the federal EPA to regulate fracking.

But the Obama administration, which has strongly backed natural gas drilling, made significant concessions to the oil and gas industry. That includes a delay in requiring that gases be captured at the well until Jan. 1, 2015.

The original federal plan called for compliance in 60 days.

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Lena Groeger, ProPublica: The EPA’s First Fracking Rules—Limited and Delayed

"It sets a floor for what the industry needs to do," said attorney Erik Schlenker-Goodrich of the Western Environmental Law Center. "The reality is we can do far better."

Over the past few years, more information has come out about fracking's potential harms to the environment and human health, particularly relating to the risk of groundwater contamination. In addition to the many potentially toxic components of the highly pressurized fluid injected into the ground during the natural gas drilling process, fracking can also release cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and greenhouse gases like methane into the air. The federal government has made moves to tighten regulations, and we've chronicled the history of those regulations.

The EPA's new rules don't cover most of those issues. Instead, they address just a single problem with natural gas, namely, air pollution.

"These rules do not resolve chronic water, public health, and other problems associated with fracking and natural gas," Schlenker-Goodrich said.

The agency is actually barred from regulating the impact of fracking on groundwater. That is because in 2005 Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act. Congressional proposals to give the EPA more oversight have so far failed.

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USA Today video: EPA issues air pollution rules for fracking wells

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Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, Switchboard: Still Fuming: New EPA Natural Gas Rules Leave Communities at Risk

[H]ere’s a summary of major flaws in the standards that endanger children and families across the country.

  • There is a 2.5 year delay before requirements kick in to use the most effective technology to control pollution from gas wells.  This is really disappointing because these controls are urgently needed.  A recent study in Colorado showed that health risks increase the closer you get to the well and in many states these wells are located in people’s backyards and next to schoolyards.
  • EPA is leaving in place a loophole that allows existing facilities the ability to release thousands of pounds (up to 1 ton per year) of cancer causing benzene from one type of equipment (large glycol dehydrators) despite analysis showing that this could result in dangerous cancer risk for neighboring communities..
  • Under the new rules, existing facilities will not be required to upgrade their equipment to reduce emissions and protect public health.  This means that families already struggling with the air pollution caused by these facilities won’t get the relief they need.
  • Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is supposed to evaluate the health threats from industrial sources, like fracking facilities, and set standards to protect the most vulnerable populations.  But, with this National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) rule, EPA missed the opportunity to provide critical relief from toxic air pollutants that are linked to respiratory and neurological problems and cancer.
  • The NESHAP rule relied on a heavily flawed analysis of health risks which omitted dangerous pollutants, ignored major sources of pollution, and failed to protect the most vulnerable populations.  On the technology side, the rule failed to consider existing best practices already being deployed by many facilities to control pollution and prevent health impacts to surrounding communities.  These technologies such as, improved efficiency, leak prevention systems, and emission controls are currently available, feasible, and can even save the industry money.