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Activists Call For Oil/Gas Well Air Emissions Limits Near Population Centers

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should protect public health by setting air pollution limits on oil and natural gas wells, and associated equipment near population centers, according to a coalition of 64 environmental and community groups.

Earthjustice on Tuesday said it filed a 112-page petition on behalf of the organizations, which include Clean Air Council, Clean Air Taskforce, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club.

The request was prompted by the proliferation of new unconventional wells, according to the petition.

"Technological developments, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing [fracking] techniques, have allowed the industry to reach oil and gas reserves that were previously considered inaccessible," the groups wrote in the petition. "Major oil and gas shale plays -- including the Marcellus, Haynesville and Barnett gas plays and the Bakken, Eagle Ford and Monterey oil plays -- that were once considered impossible to access, are now expected to produce hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and tens of billions of barrels of oil.

"This oil and gas expansion has brought drilling activities closer to heavily populated areas, including the Dallas/Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Los Angeles metropolitan regions, placing drill rigs near homes, schools and workplaces and posing an ever increasing threat to public health. If this development continues as predicted, more communities will face greater toxic air emissions and associated harm -- most notably from emissions at well sites."

According to Earthjustice, "at least 100,000 tons per year of hazardous air pollution from oil and gas well sites -- such as benzene, formaldehyde, and naphthalene -- are currently being emitted.

"More than 150 million Americans now live near oil and gas wells, or above shale areas where companies are looking to drill or engage in hydraulic fracturing, and EPA needs to set standards that restrict the hazardous air pollutants they put into the air," said Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse, who filed the petition on behalf of the groups. "Oil and gas wells release chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and respiratory disease, and EPA should protect our communities, especially our children, from exposure to these hazards."

The EPA said February in a 529-page report that total methane emissions from natural gas systems nationwide decreased by 2.4% from 1990 to 2012, while greenhouse gas emissions also declined during the same period by 3.3% (see Shale Daily, Feb. 25). Although it's been challenged by studies and groups such as the EDF (see Shale Daily, Feb. 14), national reductions in the EPA's report were credited to a large decrease in emissions from natural gas production and distribution.

A 2013 study organized by EDF concluded that industry efforts to control emissions at well sites were having a significant impact (see Shale Daily, Sept. 17). Emissions from fracked well completions are "significantly lower than estimates used by the EPA in the national emissions inventory," according to Southwestern Energy Co., one of the industry partners in the EDF research. "This study shows that the amount of methane emissions from the natural gas production sector can be effectively minimized by applying reasonable emission capture and control practices," said Mark Boling, Southwestern general counsel.

Research last year also determined that shale gas production activities in the Barnett Shale had not resulted in volatile organic compound exposures great enough to pose a health concern for area residents (see Shale Daily, Oct. 1, 2013).

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