Hearing Focuses on Air Quality at Wells
By ANA CAMPOY And RUSSELL GOLD
ARLINGTON, Texas—Residents living amid oil and gas well sites urged federal environmental regulators Thursday to implement rules that would require the industry to capture almost all of the smog-producing compounds it now releases while drilling.
The resurgence of domestic onshore oil and gas drilling has created thousands of jobs and produced billions in profits for shareholders. It has even prompted talk of slashing U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources. Drilling into shale rock and using hydraulic fracturing to break open the rock and release oil and gas has spread from Texas to Pennsylvania, Louisiana, North Dakota and Ohio.
Residents and industry representatives attended a public hearing here Thursday, the last of three across the U.S. to gather comment on the proposed rules from the Environmental Protection Agency, which could go into effect next spring.
The EPA's proposed new emission regulations would govern all oil and gas drilling, though its concern is focused on new wells into shale because drilling and hydraulically fracturing these wells requires drilling rigs, compressor stations and other machinery that generate air pollution.
In north Texas, above the fecund Barnett Shale, where the drilling renaissance began a decade ago, some residents were concerned their air was being fouled from such operations.
"This is a metropolitan area and we need to breathe," said Susan Waskey, a 53-year-old retiree from Argyle, Texas who was among about 140 people who attended the hearing.
Many of the residents who spoke in the morning portion of the hearing favored the EPA proposals, but at least one said she was concerned that the economic benefits of drilling would be hindered by more rules.
The industry, wary of public discontent, isn't outright opposing the proposed new rules, but wants to modify parts and delay their implementation.
"There needs to be more time for compliance," said Thomas Sullivan, an environmental engineering consultant who spoke on behalf of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, a trade group.
The industry's position, however, didn't appease many of the citizens at the gathering.
"It's just a stall tactic," said John Rath, a 54-year-old resident of nearby Grapevine, Texas, who attended the hearing. "Our air needs to get cleaned up."
The new rules also target methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas and, says the EPA, especially potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
The agency is developing the regulations as part of a court agreement that resulted from a 2009 lawsuit by two environmental groups that accused it of failing to properly oversee air pollution from the oil and natural gas industry. Under the deal, the EPA must issue the final rules by the end of February.
Several studies have found that emissions from the large number of machines required to develop modern gas fields is having a negative impact on air quality.
In 2009, a Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality study found that large-scale natural gas development in a rural county, with a population density of two people per square mile, had pushed ozone levels beyond federal air standards.
The environmental community is applauding the government's efforts. "This is the really the first time that the EPA is updating its old air standards to include the oil and gas industry," says Deb Nardone, the Sierra Club's Natural Gas Campaign Director.
The American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies for larger oil companies in Washington D.C., called the proposed changes reasonable. "Some rules are worse than others and this rule is not the end of the world as long as we can get time to implement it," says Howard Feldman, the group's director of regulatory and scientific affairs.
But some at the hearing raised questions about the data the EPA was using to determine the amount of gas that escapes into the air at well sites, saying that in many wells the amount was much smaller than what the agency estimated. Darren Smith, environment, health and safety manager at Devon Energy Corp., told EPA officials they should review their numbers before settling on any rules.
"We are strongly opposed to using misleading emission estimates to force this requirement where it isn't feasible," he told EPA officials during the hearing.
A spokeswoman from the EPA said the agency would evaluate all of the comments collected during the hearings before making any decisions.