A fracking site in South Montrose, PA. Source: Bryan Walsh, "Shale Gas: It's Not the Fracking That Might Be the Problem. It's Everything Else," www.time.com, Feb. 17, 2012. Courtesy of Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released the first ever federal air standards for hydraulic fracturing--also known as fracking. A key component of the rule forces operators of new wells to use technology by 2015 to capture harmful substances that could possibly escape during the fracking process.
Fracking is a procedure in which drillers inject water, chemicals, and sand into underground geological formations to create fractures that enable natural gas to flow up to the surface level and be collected. The Wall Street Journal reported that shale gas, which is recovered by fracking, was 1% of the US gas supply in 2000 and 25% in 2011.
As the use of fracking has increased, environmental concerns about the substances emitted during the procedure, such as methane and benzene, have contributed to an ongoing debate about whether or not the United States should continue to allow fracking. According to the EPA, methane "is the primary constituent of natural gas" and "is a potent greenhouse gas--more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide when emitted directly to the atmosphere."
Additionally, a recent study from the Colorado School of Public Health cited the risks from benzene which it found in the air near wells where fracking had been performed. A March 2012 news release from the school stated: "We also calculated higher cancer risks for residents living nearer to the wells as compared to those residing further [away]... Benzene is the major contributor to lifetime excess cancer risk..."
EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a press release that the new rules will help reduce pollutants: "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." The new rules are estimated to yield a nearly 95% reduction in harmful emissions from the more than 11,000 new fracking wells each year.
The EPA also estimates that the required technology will result in costs savings of $11-19 million by 2015 because the natural gas industry will be able to sell or use the gas that it captures.
The Western Energy Alliance, a nonprofit association representing 400 oil and gas companies, challenged the EPA's calculation of cost savings. In a press release it stated: "Only a federal agency far removed from real-world economics and on-the-ground conditions could say with a straight face that a regulation is cost effective when it has $745 million in costs and only $11-19 million in benefits. Even with that disparity, we believe EPA seriously overestimated the benefits and underestimated the costs of compliance."
The new EPA regulations were issued in response to a US District Court decision that required the agency to review air toxins and the natural gas industry and take action by April 17, 2012.
"EPA Issues Updated, Achievable Air Pollution Standards for Oil and Natural Gas,” www.epa.gov, Apr. 18, 2012
"EPA's Fundamentally Flawed Rule Underestimates True Costs," westernenergyalliance.org, Apr. 18, 2012
"Overview of Final Amendments to Air Regulations for the Oil and Natural Gas Industry,” www.epa.gov (accessed Apr. 23, 2012)
"Study Shows Air Emissions near Fracking Sites May Pose Health Risk,” www.ucdenver.edu, Mar. 9, 2012
"The Facts about Fracking," www.wsj.com, June 25, 2011
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