With similar rules already in effect, Wyoming officials are shrugging off the first national standards to control air pollution from oil and natural gas wells.
The Obama administration on Wednesday announced the rules, which had been called for by environmental groups but whose final version included concessions to the oil and gas industry.
Top Environmental Protection Agency officials said Wednesday that the new regulations would ensure pollution is controlled without slowing booming U.S. oil and natural gas production.
“By ensuring the capture of gases that were previously released to pollute our air and threaten our climate, these updated standards will protect our health, but also lead to more product for fuel suppliers to bring to market,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a media release.
John Robitaille is vice president for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, a state oil and gas industry group. Robitaille said he was still working through the hundreds of pages of new federal rules. But they appeared to closely match what is already required for operators in Wyoming, he said.
“I tell you, Wyoming is really out in front with the majority of this stuff,” he said. “Some of this, it almost appeared that EPA lifted our rules and just copied it.”
Robitaille’s reading of the rules was correct, according to Gov. Matt Mead’s office. The EPA told Wyoming regulators it was examining Wyoming’s and Colorado’s rules to help it craft federal rules, Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said.
“Wyoming strives to balance energy development with environmental protection. The EPA’s acknowledgment that it used Wyoming’s oil and gas rules as a basis for its new rules is an affirmation of Wyoming’s leadership,” Mead said in a statement.
However, Mead added, “I believe the EPA should have left regulation to the states.”
Much of the air pollution from wells is vented when the well transitions from drilling to production, a three- to 10-day process referred to as “completion.”
An earlier version of the rule limiting air pollution from wells would have required companies to install pollution-reducing equipment immediately after the rule was finalized.
Drillers now will be given more than two years to employ technology to reduce emissions of smog- and soot-forming pollutants during that stage. The Environmental Protection Agency will require drillers to burn off gas in the meantime, an alternative that can release smog-forming nitrogen oxides, but will still slash overall emissions.
Industry groups had pushed hard for the delay, saying the equipment to reduce pollution at the wellhead during completion was not readily available.
Bruce Pendery of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, a environmental group, said Wyoming has been “sort of a star” in rules to limit air pollution from oil and gas wells.
He said the council was disappointed the Obama administration didn’t require operators to immediately limit air pollution, but was glad the federal government will now restrict air pollution nationwide, including states without such rules.
“There’s a real question whether these federal regulations are going to do more than the state was already,” he said. But Pendery’s “glad to see a federal backstop. It’ll ensure Wyoming will stay strong — but Wyoming has been strong in the past.”
President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, strongly backed natural gas drilling as a clean energy source. He recently announced an executive order calling for coordination of federal regulation to ease burdens on producers. But he has come under criticism by the industry and Republicans for policies they say discourage energy development.
Besides the new standards for oil and gas wells, the EPA also on Wednesday updated existing rules for natural gas processing plants, storage tanks and transmission lines that will reduce amounts of cancer-causing air pollution, such as benzene, and also reduce methane — the main ingredient in natural gas, but also one of the most potent global warming gases.
There were other changes made since the EPA proposed the rule last July under a court order that stemmed from a lawsuit brought by environmental groups.
Wells drilled in low-pressure areas, such as coal-bed methane reserves, would be exempt because they release less pollution during completion. And companies that choose to refracture wells using the pollution-reducing equipment prior to the January 2015 deadline would not be covered by other parts of the regulation.
Since companies could capture the natural gas and sell it, the EPA estimates that they would save about $11 million to $19 million a year starting in 2015.
The American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, said much of the industry was already doing that.
“We don’t need [the EPA] to come and tell our members we will save you money,” said Howard Feldman, the institute’s director of regulatory and scientific affairs. “Their business is natural gas. They get it that they are trying to capture as much gas as they can.”
The reaction from environmental groups was mixed Wednesday, in large part due to the two-year delay on requiring companies to perform so-called “green” completions.
“This concession only promotes wasteful drilling,” said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, an advocacy group which sued the EPA in 2009 to force regulation. But, he said, “these rules promise to safeguard our communities and keep the dirty process of drilling in check.”
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is largely responsible for the national natural gas drilling boom. About 25,000 wells a year are being fracked, a process where water, chemicals and sand are injected at high pressure underground to release trapped natural gas. But the technique has raised environmental concerns for its toll on air and water.
Last spring, pollution from natural gas drilling in the Upper Green River Basin in western Wyoming triggered levels of ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, that exceeded the federal threshold 13 times. The state also issued 10 ozone warnings.
In Dish, Texas, a rural town northwest of Dallas, the state’s environmental regulators detected levels of cancer-causing benzene, sometimes at levels dangerous to human health, likely coming from industry’s 60 drilling wells, gas production pads and rigs, a treating facility and compressor station.
At the same time, a state study in Pennsylvania of air quality near Marcellus Shale drilling sites in four counties found no emissions at levels that would threaten the health of nearby residents or workers.