Air Pollution is Regulatory Blind Spot

by Dee Fulton on October 16, 2011

Joe Osbourne

Joe Osbourne answered some questions that have been rattling around in my mind for a while.  Osbourne is the legal director for a Pittsburgh-based environment/public health advocacy nonprofit called GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution) and also serves on the Pennsylvania DEP’s Air Quality Technical Advisory Committee.  He gave a presentation on the topic of air pollution generated by the natural gas production industry to a group of concerned citizens in Morgantown on Thursday evening at the Airport Annex.

Ever since I read about green completions, also known as Reduced Emissions Completions (REC), I’ve wondered why a technique that reduces pollution and is financially profitable for a company is not always used.   After a gas well is hydraulically fracked, there is tremendous pressure in the well which must be released and contaminating elements must be allowed to be blown off before a cleaner flow of natural gas is established.   This is the well completion phase.  As the pressure is released, there is typically a 40-50 foot high tower of flowback, a dirty mix of gas, water, rocks and soil raging out of the well, much like the steam that is released from a pressure cooker when the cap is taken off before its cooled.   Instead of capturing the valuable methane gas and hydrocarbon byproducts of gas production when the well is completed, flaring is often used to burn up the gas and vaporize the dirty water.  Flaring may run from a few days to several weeks.

Flaring has a high efficiency for burning up volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) but a small percentage is lost into the atmosphere and contributes to the greenhouse gas effect.  Also flaring may release additional carbon dioxide and other pollutants (SOx, NOx, PM and CO) to the atmosphere.

The EPA has encouraged the use of REC as a means to reduce the pollution from flaring; the amount of gas recovered actually more than pays for the investment in the equipment needed to separate the gas from the contaminants which allows the gas that would be lost to go into the production line.  But gas producers often are under pressure (ironically) to complete a well because of lease contract deadlines.  The drilling, fracking and completion are done before the infrastructure is there is the form of pipelines to collect and transport the gas.   Thus, flaring is employed to get the job done quickly and lock in the leases rather than wait for pipelines to be constructed.  Flaring is also used during well workovers.

Osbourne explained that another factor is undercapitalization.  Many of the large gas producers are deep in debt, leveraged to the hilt.    They can’t spend over $500,000 on REC equipment when the payback period on the investment to achieve profit level may be 6 months or more, depending on the price of gas at the time.

When a finite and valuable resource is wasted due to financial decisions, there is market failure, Osbourne explained.  This term is explained in Wikipedia as “concept within economic theory wherein the allocation of goods and services by a free market is not efficient”. (Excuse this interesting digression.)

But flaring is only a small part of the air pollution problem associated with natural gas production.  Osbourne referred to the research report by professor Al Armendiraz, PhD of Southern Methodist University that stated that emissions from the gas industry were greater than the emissions from all the auto and truck traffic within the same Fort Worth, Tx area.  Osbourne pointed to the impacts on air quality from natural gas operations in rural Wyoming.  ”What we’re seeing there is an industry that turned Wyoming air into air that is more polluted than Los Angeles.”  Benzene, formaldehyde and acylonitrile are among the list of pollutants associated with compressors, condensate tanks, and other gas equipment.  Air quality studies in Texas (Dish) and Colorado (Garfield County and the GASSED report) have documented hazardous levels of air pollutants related to gas production.  Per the GASSED report, “A total of 22 toxic chemicals were detected in the nine air samples, including four known carcinogens, toxins known to damage the nervous system, and respiratory irritants. The levels detected were in many cases significantly higher than what is considered safe by state and federal agencies.”

So, where is our white knight in shining armor?  Where are our regulatory agencies to protect us from being poisoned?  Joe Osbourne spoke to that.  He reviewed the court case that was brought by the Wetzel County Action Group. The citizens pleaded that the well sites should be classified as a major polluter rather than treated by the regulations that govern smaller scale polluters because the operations should be considered in the aggregate.  Because currently well operations are treated as separate pollution sources rather than collectively in their impacts on air quality,  the gas industry is flying under the regulatory radar.  ”The air programs are essentially blind to everything that happens at well sites” Osbourne said.  To be aggregated, different sources of air pollution must belong to the same industrial grouping, located on one or more contiguous or adjacent properties and must be under the control of the same person per law.   The West Virginia Air Quality Board essentially decided that the Chesapeake operations in Wetzel County did not meet the aggregation criteria.

Osbourne also commented on the newly proposed EPA air quality rules in relation to the problem of the classification of gas industry activities as non-major when they would be considered as major, and subject to the laws governing major polluters, if considered in the aggregate.  ”I support the EPA proposed rules.  There was a rumor that aggregation would be addressed in the new rules. ……(but) the  way they are addressing aggregation is not very helpful, and potentially harmful.”

The topic of aggregation is a key element in the new rules proposed by Pennsylvania’s DEP last Wednesday.  Those proposed rules are under fire from environmental/public health groups because the standard for aggregation is based upon a quarter mile standard for distance between equipment.  In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek story, Joe Osbourne is quoted: “…. a compressor station and the well pads that feed into it are often more than a quarter-mile apart. Treating them as separate entities will allow them to pollute more, he said.”

In West Virginia, the Select Committee on Marcellus Shale has been making progress in developing legislation.  One proposed amendment addresses air pollution. It calls for well site activity to be regulated and permitted by the Office of Air Quality and “The Secretary shall consider as part of any air quality permit condition or other regulation or limitation, the cumulative impacts to air quality of multiple wells in a localized geographic area.”

See also story and video clip from WBOY.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

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