Climate + Energy

Clean Air to be Protected from Drilling

At long last, the EPA rolled out its proposed rules to curb air pollution from oil and gas drilling nationwide, promising major improvements for public health, the environment, and major progress toward protecting the climate.

In a few words, they’re a drastic improvement and a major milestone.  Check out the highlights:

  • The proposed rules would generate a net savings of $30 million annually due to increased recovery of methane, otherwise known as natural gas.  In other words, the rules would not only cost nothing to implement, but they would actually make money.
  • The proposed rules would reduce volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions by 540,000 tons, an industry-wide reduction of 25%.  VOCs react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog and contain other toxic compounds.
  • The proposed rules would reduce methane emissions by 3.4 million tons, which is equal to 65 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, a reduction of about 26%.   This will be like eliminating the carbon dioxide emissions of 15 coal-fired power plants.  That is huge progress for the climate.
  • The proposed rules would reduce toxic air pollutants, such as benzene, a known carcinogen, by 38,000 tons, a 30% reduction.

The rules are long time coming and actually only came about after WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, represented by Earthjustice, filed suit over the EPA’s failure to review and update these rules as required by the Clean Air Act (you can read the full 600 page set of proposed rules here, enjoy!).

You see, federal regulations set an important floor for environmental protection in this country.  States, who implement the Clean Air Act, have to ensure their safeguards are as strong federal rules.  In this case, rules limiting air pollution from the oil and gas industry were last adopted as far as back as 1985.

The latest proposal is sorely needed and promises to raise the floor of federal protection considerably from Wyoming to West Virginia and everywhere in between.  The proposed rules not only strengthen limits on toxic air pollution, but ensure that the hydraulic fracturing of wells–which is a major source of VOC emissions–is fully regulated.

There are shortcomings.  The rules do not explicitly regulate methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  WildEarth Guardians and others estimated that a full suite of methane controls could save more than $1 billion annually.  Still, even with the VOC controls, the rules would reduce methane emissions by more than 20% from the oil and gas sector, which itself is the largest source of methane in the United States.  That’s amazing news for the climate.

And of course, let’s be clear that cleaner natural gas is not the solution to our nation’s energy needs.  However, if we start to make progress toward exposing the clean air impacts of drilling and to at least hold industry accountable to protecting our health and well-being, we can make some major strides to ensure renewable energy and other cleaner sources of energy comes out ahead as the most desirable solution.

In the meantime, we can all start to breathe a lot more easily.  The EPA really did its job on this one and for that, I’d like to extend a big thanks.

Check out the video we put out when reached our settlement with the EPA.  Our hopes came true, they came through for clean air!