Hydraulic Fracturing, Air Pollution, and the Need to Federally Regulate the Natural Gas Industry


Author: Aviva Horrow Reinfeld

The energy and economic benefits of the natural gas boom are accompanied by public fears of groundwater contamination, air pollution, and further threats to public health. The media tends to polarize the debate between a “drill baby drill” industry and stubborn activists calling for bans on hydraulic fracturing, the process used to drill for unconventional sources of natural gas. More moderate voices have emerged that call for continued drilling, but only if performed “the right way.”

While there are extremes on both sides of the debate, more moderate schools of thought regarding fracking do exist.

Yet drilling “the right way” is simply code for regulation—something the natural gas industry has opposed vigorously. For years, the oil and gas industry has enjoyed exemptions from seven major federal environmental laws. As a result, the natural gas industry is almost entirely regulated at the state level, with extreme variation from state to state. While Pennsylvania attracts industry with its lax regulations, neighboring New York banned drilling until it could complete comprehensive environmental and public health reviews. The precedent set by air pollution regulation, demonstrates why baseline federal regulations are crucial to ensuring that drill-hungry states do not overlook the impacts on public health.

The natural gas drilling process generates air pollution from equipment, processing plants, and fugitive emissions that leak through pipes. While natural gas is cleaner than coal, its fossil fuel sibling, its extraction still emits pollutants including methane, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, formaldehyde, and acrolein. Many HAPs are known carcinogens.

Drilling threatens local as well as regional public health. Virtually no data or studies exist on the subject, yet people living near drilling sites have reported skin, respiratory, and circulation issues. Those who can relocate often do. In Dish, Texas, constant drilling drove the mayor himself to leave town out of fear for the health of his children. Still, towns are often unable to adequately demonstrate the link between pollution and residents’ maladies.

Two of drilling’s main pollutants, VOCs and NOx (which also come from motor vehicles), create ground-level ozone when combined with sunlight. Ground-level ozone mixes with particulate matter pollution to form smog; this causes lung damage, asthma, and other health problems, not to mention damages sustained by crops and other vegetation Ozone also travels, posing regional and cross-state pollution problems.  The drastic increase in drilling has pushed some state air pollution levels out of compliance with the federal health-based maximum standard of 0.075 parts per million (ppm). States like Wyoming and Utah were amazed to discover that for the first time, rural regions with small populations and intense drilling had winter ozone levels greater than even Los Angeles’ worst days, at 0.140 ppm. This is surprising given that high ozone pollution usually occurs in the summer, when temperatures are elevated in areas with congested vehicle traffic.  Scientists attributed this phenomenon to a “temperature inversion,” in which NOx and VOCs are trapped in the atmospheric layer close to the ground at night and baked into ozone during the day.  In the Denver-Julesburg Basin, 20,000 oil and gas wells caused Colorado’s North Front region to fall out of attainment for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) summertime ozone standard.  In Dallas-Fort Worth, an area already out of attainment, a recent study found that a single natural gas compressor facility could add as much as 0.03 ppm to the hourly average ambient ozone level.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York sit atop the Marcellus Shale Formation.

These examples do not bode well for Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, which are highly populated, already experience poor air quality, and sit atop the enormous Marcellus and Utica shale plays.  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is particularly vulnerable because it is surrounded by heavily drilled counties and is already a victim of ozone pollution from midwestern coal-fired power plants.  Likewise, downwind states that lack natural gas reserves may bear the brunt of their neighbors’ ozone pollution and respond with litigation.

To make matters worse, Pennsylvania resists compliance with federal New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), technology-based standards that apply to major new or modified sources of ozone.  This standard requires new major sources built in areas not meeting the federal standard to offset their own emissions by reducing emissions from other sources in the surrounding areas. Unlike traditional major sources of ozone, however, natural gas wells spring up all across landscapes, bringing multiple small sources of ozone pollution such as truck traffic, drill rigs, condensate tanks, compressor stations, and pipelines. Pennsylvania continually avoids aggregating these numerous minor elements into “major” sources that would fall under the NSPS rubric, despite the EPA’s guidelines.  This further frustrates the ability to rein in air emissions.

The good news is that we have the means to reduce air pollution from drilling activity by preventing leaks and capturing emissions from processing equipment. When Colorado and Wyoming first fell out of ozone attainment, the EPA mandated cleaner drilling processes such as “green completions” to capture fugitive gas that otherwise leaks into the atmosphere when new wells are drilled. Based on their success, the EPA updated the NSPS to require new and refractured high-pressure wells to use green completions and other technologies to trap emissions from compressors, dehydrators, and storage tanks. These requirements will not take effect until 2015 due to political compromises with industry. Once they are in place, success will depend on adequate state funding to monitor the implementation of the standards and ensure compliance.  Hopefully, states like Pennsylvania will reverse course from aggressively slashing funding for its own environmental protection agency to meet federal requirements.

Lessons from the air pollution problem can provide insight into “the right way” to drill.  Unconventional natural gas drilling is moving quickly, and some states drill first and think later. This is the reason we need federal baseline regulations and why the oil and gas industry should not be exempt from federal environmental laws.  The air pollution problem also demonstrates why planning and monitoring remain crucial. When states welcome new industries, they should also be able to regulate them to protect public health and the environment.

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Aviva Horrow Reinfeld is currently a law clerk at the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  She has a JD from Stanford Law School where she served as a Co-President of the Environmental Law Society and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in History and Environmental Studies.