Press Releases

22 Sep 2015
2015 - EPA unveils tougher emissions rules for shale sites

On one thing, the federal government, industry and environmental activists agree: Technologies already in use are driving down methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency wants new regulations to broaden their use. It’s also why industry groups feel such regulations are “unnecessary,” and why environmental groups say proposed new rules don’t go far enough.

The EPA unveiled a package of rules Tuesday aimed at curbing methane and volatile organic compound emissions from sources all along the oil and gas production chain. The rules target shale operations and are the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s effort to rein in methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels in the next decade.

The EPA started the effort in 2012 when it required shale gas operators to stop venting or flaring gas from wells into the air and instead implement “green completions” — a process of capturing the gas that would have otherwise been burned or released. Natural gas companies were given until January to comply.

Tuesday’s suite of regulations builds on those rules and extends the requirement to hydraulically fractured oil wells, new equipment and modified equipment at compressor stations, transmission facilities and processing plants.

It also adds pneumatic pumps, the second largest source of methane emissions in Pennsylvania, to a list of regulated equipment at well sites and compressors.

For states that have high levels of ozone pollution, the EPA issued recommendations on curbing volatile organic compounds at existing oil and gas sites. Southwestern Pennsylvania has a concentration of such areas. With the federal government currently in the process of reimagining the ozone map, more of the state might fall into the designation.

Cheryl Wilson, an energy policy analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence, noted the guidelines “aren’t technically enforceable because states choose how to reduce ozone emissions.”

In the U.S., methane accounts for 10 percent of emissions that cause global warming, with the majority coming from carbon dioxide. But the gas is 84 percent more powerful than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere within a 20-year time span, which climate scientists say is the most critical period to get emissions under control.

Pennsylvania started collecting methane emission estimates from oil and gas companies in 2012. That year, it recorded 123,884 tons. In 2013, operators and midstream companies reported a 13 percent decrease.

Cabot Oil & Gas had by far the steepest decline, without which total oil and gas emissions in the state would have increased.

The Texas-based company that operates in Susquehanna County and produces the most gas in the state, implemented green completions, started welding its pipelines and burying them under ground, developed a leak detection system and hired people to think of emission reduction strategies, said spokesman George Stark.

Mr. Stark said Cabot doesn’t anticipate the new rules would strain its costs or practices. But others in the industry fired shots at the proposal.

“We need common sense policies that encourage job-creating shale development,” said Dave Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, “not duplicative, costly and unnecessary regulations that undercut energy security and economic opportunity.”

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, praised the new rules but cautioned that they apply only to new or modified oil and gas operations. They exclude 100 percent of today’s emissions and 90 percent of those expected in 2018.

Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, said Tuesday during a call with reporters that the agency hasn’t ruled out extending regulations to existing sources. She declined to discuss any strategies beyond what was proposed Tuesday.

With the EPA sidestepping existing sources, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection should pick up the slack, said John Walliser, vice president of legal and governmental affairs at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

“There are a lot of wells in Pennsylvania that are affecting the lives, the health, the safety of Pennsylvanians today. That’s not being dealt with,” he said.

Leaks account for 9 percent of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas methane emissions, according to data operators submitted to the DEP for 2013. That estimate is based on emission factors or formulas, not direct measurement.

Howard Feldman, senior director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters Tuesday that the trade group may not have a problem with the fugitive emissions component.

“We have not opposed, conceptually, a leak detection program, just like we have not opposed conceptually a [volatile organic compound]” regulation, he said. “The devil will be in the details.”

The EPA will accept public comments for 60 days after the rule is published in the Federal Register, and will also have a series of public hearings with dates and sites yet to be announced.