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Ohio Utica Shale

U.S. EPA approves air rules but delays full implementation

By Bob Downing Published: April 18, 2012

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today approved the first-ever clean-air rules on drilling for natural gas with hydraulic fracturing or fracking, but environmentalists aren’t happy with a 2½-year delay in implementing a key portion of the new rules.

The long-awaited air rules are not expected to have a big impact on the shale drilling boom in Ohio and other states, experts said.

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 will also 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 engaged in heavy last-minute lobbying. 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, but the industry got more flexibility in the new rules.

The industry had argued that stricter federal rules could cut back on natural gas production by 11 percent, oil production by 37 percent and that fracking would be cut by more than 50 percent.

The new rules are "practical, flexible, achievable and affordable," said EPA spokeswoman Gina McCarthy in a national teleconference.

The delay was necessary to assure the technologies needed to curtail emissions can be built and distributed and that workers can be trained, she said.

The rules cover the production, processing, transmission and storage of oil and natural, another issue with fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing has spawned a natural gas-drilling boom, but has raised environmental concerns for its toll on water and air. The new rules do not address water concerns.

The new rule won praise from environmentalists, but Ohio activists were unhappy with the delay.

The EPA is "a major step forward," said the Sierra Club and five other eco-groups in a joint statement.

Added Miriam Rotkin-Ellman of the Natural Resources Defense Council: "The rapid expansion of oil and gas drilling without modern air-pollution controls has exposed millions of Americans to a toxic brew of cancer-causing, smog-producing and climate-changing air pollutants. Left to police itself for too long, the oil and gas industry has failed to even adopt pollution controls that pay for themselves."

But Columbus-based Teresa Mills of No Frack Ohio and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice said the 2015 date is "a real letdown."

The delay is likely to result in dirtier air in eastern Ohio with its just-developing Utica shale, and Ohioans wanted the new rules implemented sooner, she said.

That dirty air in Ohio is likely to trigger increased asthma attacks, more school and work missed and major health problems, she said. "It’s very disturbing," she said.

The industry was pleased by the EPA announcement.

"Overall, EPA has made some important adjustment in the rules," said Howard Feldman of the American Petroleum Institute. "Most of the changes were constructive."

The EPA rejected a proposal by Feldman’s group to exempt a number of wells from the new clean-air rules.

Chesapeake Energy Corp, the No. 1 player in Ohio, declined comment on the new rules.

Lobbyists from Devon Energy Corp. and Chesapeake Energy sought to delay and scale back the rule, while refuting eco-group’s claims that fracking causes air pollution, Bloomberg News reported.

The two companies, both based in Oklahoma, are involved in drilling in Ohio’s Utica shale.

Southwestern Energy Co. and Devon Energy say they already use systems to capture methane and other fumes at wells, the key requirement of a rule.

What the EPA did was to update and broaden two federal Clean Air Act standards to control emissions from drilling, pumping and distributing natural gas and oil through pipelines to refineries and other processing facilities.

The EPA said half of fractured wells already deploy technologies in line with the final standards. Colorado and Wyoming have both adopted rules on air emissions from fracking.

The EPA rules include incentives aimed at encouraging drillers to use technology called green completions, which collects methane gas, the main component of natural gas, when a well is first tapped.

The system relies on truck-mounted rigs that capture these gases and put them into the pipelines to be sold at a profit instead of leaked into the air.

Starting in 2015, all wells in the United States must use the green completions technology.

The industry will also be permitted to burn or flare escaping gases until 2015, under the EPA rules.

Methane — it is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide — and VOCs escape from wells when drilling fluids come to the surface in the three to 10 days after fracking, according to the EPA.

It said that the drilling natural gas wells accounts for 40 percent of in-the-atmosphere methane in the United States.

Captured methane can be sold, netting drillers $30 million a year, according to the EPA.

The new rules will save the industry between $11 million and $19 million a year, the EPA said.

The federal agency said about 13,000 natural gas wells are drilled and fracked or refracked annually in the United States.

The EPA announcement came in order to comply with a court-imposed deadline.

The agency got more than 150,000 comments on the new rules that were first proposed in early 2011. Three public hearings were held in Pittsburgh, Denver and Arlington, Texas.

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Utica and Marcellus shale web sites

Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management State agency Web site.

ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management. State drilling permits. List is updated weekly.

ODNR Division of Geological Survey.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Ohio State University Extension.

Ohio Farm Bureau.

Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a Granville-based group that represents 1,500 Ohio energy-related companies.

Ohio Oil & Gas Energy Education Program.

Energy In Depth, a trade group.

Marcellus and Utica Shale Resource Center by Ohio law firm Bricker & Eckler.

Utica Shale, a compilation of Utica shale activities.

Landman Report Card, a site that looks at companies involved in gas and oil leases.FracFocus, a compilation of chemicals used in fracking individual wells as reported voluntarily by some drillers.

Chesapeake Energy Corp,the Oklahoma-based firm is the No. 1 driller in Ohio.

Rig Count Interactive Map by Baker Hughes, an energy services company.

Shale Sheet Fracking, a Youngstown Vindicator blog.

National Geographic's The Great Shale Rush.

The Ohio Environmental Council, a statewide eco-group based in Columbus.

Buckeye Forest Council.

Earthjustice, a national eco-group.

Stop Fracking Ohio.

People's Oil and Gas Collaborative-Ohio, a grass-roots group in Northeast Ohio.

Concerned Citizens of Medina County, a grass-roots group.

No Frack Ohio, a Columbus-based grass-roots group.

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat by ProPublica, an online journalism site.

Penn State Marcellus Center.

Pipeline, blog from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Marcellus shale drilling.

Allegheny Front, environmental public radio for Western Pennsylvania.