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April 23, 2012
EPA Finalizes Rules on Emissions from Fracking
    by Robert Kropp

Drillers of new wells that use hydraulic fracturing to access natural gas resources have until 2015 to employ green completions to capture methane and other chemicals before they are released into the environment.

After a 100-day comment period that drew 150,000 responses from interested parties, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued regulations designed to lessen air emissions from the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process.

Starting in 2015, all new wells must employ the green completions technology, which captures methane and other pollutants that escape from wells in the first few days after they are drilled. The captured gases can then be transported via pipelines and sold as fuel. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), many oil and gas companies already use green completions because of the financial benefits.

Methane is the primary component of natural gas, and when emitted directly into the atmosphere is a greenhouse gas (GHG) more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. EPA estimates that the regulations will lead to a decrease in emissions of methane and other pollutants—including the cancer-causing benzene and hexane—of 95%.

"By ensuring the capture of gases that were previously released to pollute our air and threaten our climate, these updated standards will not only protect our health, but also lead to more product for fuel suppliers to bring to market," EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said.

Many environmentalist groups praised EPA for issuing the regulations, but some qualified their enthusiasm by describing the rules as a first step. An NRDC blog post, for example, points out, "This first step is an important one, but it leaves literally millions of tons of pollution from this industry uncontrolled, still harming communities and our planet."

Also, EPA's new regulations do not address the endangerment of water supplies by toxic chemicals and well leakage during the fracking process. In fact, Congress went so far as to exempt natural gas drillers from the Safe Water Drinking Act in 2005, and Congressional efforts to return authority to EPA have thus far failed.

Nevertheless, EPA did launch a study of the impact on drinking water supplies, the results of which are expected in 2014. And after a three-year investigation, EPA determined in December that groundwater in Pavilion, Wyoming, had been contaminated by chemicals used in the fracking process. EPA also found methane and other petroleum hydrocarbons, "consistent with migration from areas of gas production."

During last year's proxy season, shareowner resolutions addressing the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing gained an unprecedented 40% support. Ten resolutions were filed this year, focusing on the community impacts of the fracking process. Four of the resolutions were withdrawn after companies agreed to increased transparency.


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