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New EPA Regs Will Require Natural Gas Industry to Come Clean About Toxic Pollution

Image credit: Mscalora/Wikimedia Commons

Today, in response to a petition by 19 environmental and open-government groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released proposed regulations that will require natural gas processing plants to start publicly reporting the toxic chemicals they release.

“Today’s proposal by EPA marks significant progress for public health, the environment, and the right to know,” said Adam Kron, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. “The oil and gas industry releases an enormous amount of toxic pollutants every year, and communities deserve to know what they’re facing. We hope EPA moves swiftly to finalize and implement this simple yet vital public-reporting rule.”

The EPA will indeed have to ‘move swiftly’ if plans to put these new regulations into effect are to be realized. Following the exit of the Obama administration, the future for the agency remains unclear, given President-elect Trump’s stance on fossil fuels and climate change, and threats to dismantle the regulatory body.

Interestingly, the release of the new regulations comes only days after the publication of a study linking higher rates of dementia with proximity to major roads. With the detrimental effects of air pollution so prominently in the public eye, this could provide the EPA with the boost it needs to roll out the regulations quickly.

The proposed regulations are the result of a 2012 petition filed by the Environmental Integrity Project and 18 partner organizations. The groups asked EPA to require facilities in the oil and gas extraction industry to report their toxic pollution to the federal Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), an online public database first established in 1986 to inform the public about the release of potentially carcinogenic chemicals from industries, in the wake of the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, in which toxic gases killed thousands of local residents.

EIP’s co-petitioners are the Natural Resources Defense Council, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, CitizenShale, Clean Air Council, Clean Water Action, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Earthworks, Elected Officials to Protect New York, Environmental Advocates of New York, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, PennEnvironment, PennFuture, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Project on Government Oversight, Responsible Drilling Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Sierra Club and Texas Campaign for the Environment. The groups filed a lawsuit against EPA in January 2015 to compel the Agency to respond to the petition, which it finally did in October 2015.

In support of its proposed rule, EPA has stated that there are 517 natural gas processing facilities in the lower 48 states as of 2012 (a subsequent estimate found 551 facilities in 2014), and more than half of these plants would meet the Toxic Release Inventory’s chemical reporting thresholds for 21 different toxic chemicals, including benzene, hydrogen sulfide, n-hexane, and methanol.

Other industries have long reported to the TRI, but the oil and gas industries have not been held to the same standard. This is particularly concerning considering back in 2012 the EPA estimated that these industries emit at least 127,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year, all of which are TRI-listed chemicals. Based on these estimates, oil and gas extraction releases more toxic pollution into the air than any other industry, with the exception of power plants.

“This welcome step from EPA is long overdue,” said Amy Mall, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “People deserve to know what toxic chemicals are being released near their homes, schools and hospitals. Yet, for too long, the oil and gas industry has been exempt from rules that apply to other industries. We will hold the next administration accountable for putting an end to that special treatment.”

George Jugovic, Jr., VP of Legal Affairs at PennFuture, views the new regulations and the resulting information as crucial for empowering state and local governments. “The only way for state and local government state and local governments to make informed decisions about protecting public health is to increase transparency about the nature and level of toxic chemicals being released by the shale gas industry,” he said in a statement.

Under EPA’s proposed regulations, approximately 281 to 444 natural gas processing facilities across the U.S. would have to start reporting their releases of toxic chemicals, including xylenes (which can cause breathing problems, headaches, and neurological problems), formaldehyde (which is a carcinogen and damages the respiratory system), and benzene (which can cause cancer). Not included in EPA’s decision are well sites, compressor stations, pipelines, and other smaller facilities that employ fewer than 10 people.

“The oil and gas industry knows it’s polluting our neighborhood,” said Aaron Mintzes, policy advocate for Earthworks. “EPA isn’t proposing to make them stop, just requiring these companies to let people know about toxic pollution released near their homes, schools, and workplaces. And while this rule would cover just natural gas processing plants, by the time they finalize this rule, EPA should also add the well heads, pipelines, compressor stations and other oil and gas infrastructure.”


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