The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to more closely study air emissions from hydraulic fracturing after the agency’s auditor concluded its current data is insufficient to make policy decisions.
The EPA has already begun an inter-agency study of methane, air toxins and other pollutants released when oil and gas are tapped using the process, called fracking, Gina McCarthy, the head of the agency’s air office, said in a letter to the Inspector General’s office that was released Thursday.
“We have identified emissions information for oil and natural gas production as a critical need,” McCarthy said in her letter, which was dated Nov. 16. McCarthy is the leading candidate to be nominated by President Barack Obama to head the EPA, according to people briefed on the plans.
Gas released by fracking, in which water, chemicals and sand are shot underground to break apart underground shale and free trapped gas or oil, has contributed to a boom in production that has lowered prices for the fuel.
Methane, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming, is the main component of natural gas. As fracking starts to free gas from the rock, some methane is released. The amount emitted into the atmosphere can offset the benefits of burning natural gas over coal to generate power, Cornell University researcher Robert Howarth said in a 2011 study.
Other scientists and industry groups have said both the EPA and Howarth overstate the amount of emissions, and say drillers have an economic interest in capturing and selling the gas escaping from their wells.