EPA guidelines will impact Colorado’s air quality program

Denver's brown cloud, December 2014 [Source: CBS]

Denver’s brown cloud, December 2014 [Source: CBS]

At the end of August, the Clean Air Task Force released a report that confirmed the amount of smog from ozone emissions produced by oil and gas operations could lead to as many as 750,000 asthma attacks nationwide. The report, Gasping for Breath documents that these emissions could lead to more than 500,000 days of school missed and 2,000 asthma-related emergency room visits. Accompanying the report is the Oil & Gas Threat Map, an interactive map developed by Earthworks that displays data about the location of active oil and gas wells, and areas of threats to public health.

This month the Environmental Protection Agency issued final Control Techniques Guidelines (CTGs) for reducing volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from existing oil and natural gas equipment and processes. The CTGs represent EPA’s Reasonably Available Control Technology (RACT) recommendations for reducing VOC emissions from existing sources in the oil and gas industry, as required by the Clean Air Act.

The new guidelines have been characterized as “voluntary” and “non-binding.” In typical EPA fashion, the agency downplayed the guidelines so as not to offend anyone in the oil & gas industry, or their puppet politicians.

In a statement, the EPA said: “This document does not impose any requirements on facilities in the oil and natural gas industry. It provides only recommendations for air agencies to consider in determining [control technologies].”

Upon closer inspection, the true picture emerges. For one thing, the guidelines will only be required in those areas that are designated as nonattainment according to the stringent National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone. Currently, 21 areas throughout the U.S. are classified as “Moderate” and above the 2008 ozone standards and are therefore required to implement RACT. There are 9 Colorado counties in nonattainment: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, Jefferson, Larimer, and Weld.

States, including Colorado, with areas classified as “Moderate” or above nonattainment are required (as per the Clean Air Act) to submit their RACT rules to EPA for review and approval as part of the state implementation plan (SIP) process, whether they implement the recommendations EPA outlined in the guidelines or choose different approaches. EPA will evaluate each state’s rules and determine whether they meet RACT requirements for VOC emissions from existing oil and gas sources under the Clean Air Act. This new CTG provides recommendations as to what EPA considers RACT. The catch is the states are free to determine what is RACT for VOC emissions from existing oil and gas sources.

In other words, Colorado will be expected to enforce the CTGs as part of a program to bring those areas on the Front Range into compliance with the Clean Air Act, but the state can determine what are “reasonably available control technologies,” which often boils down to what is the most cost-effective for the operators.

The EPA does lay out a ready-to-adopt, cost-effective blueprint in the new guidelines to achieve required emission reductions and protect public health, should the states be so inclined. Though, as we have witnessed in Colorado, government often places oil & gas companies’ interests and bottom lines above public health, safety, and welfare. That’s why we look to the EPA for regulation and oversight. But that’s a subject for another day.

Last March, Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the EPA’s intention to take steps to cut methane emissions from existing oil and gas sources saying, “New data show that methane emissions are substantially higher than we previously understood. So, it’s time to take a closer look at regulating existing sources of methane emissions.”

The CTGs do not cover emissions associated with drilling or completions (fracking) at oil and gas wells. Instead the guidelines zero in on old and aging equipment. The guidelines focus on storage vessels, pneumatic controllers, pneumatic pumps, centrifugal and reciprocating compressors, equipment leaks and fugitive emissions.

Fugitive VOCs are emitted along with methane from a variety of different sources. Controlling VOCs from older equipment will begin to address a significant yet invisible source of methane pollution.

What is clear from the recommendations is the EPA is on a mission to retro-fit existing oil and gas infrastructure with new state-of-the-art control technologies. Though ultimately it’s up to the operators to make those upgrades and it’s up to the states to enforce the guidelines.

On the positive side, the CTGs as a whole represent an instrumental part of EPA’s climate change agenda. Once fully implemented by states, the CTGs are estimated to reduce VOC emissions by about 80,000 tons per year, methane emissions by about 200,000 tons per year, and other hazardous air pollutants by about 3,000 tons per year.

But — and this in typical EPA fashion as well — the guidelines do not go far enough. I’ll let Earthworks’ Policy Director Lauren Pagel break the news:

“While we applaud President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency for finalizing voluntary control techniques guidelines (CTGs) for smog-forming pollution from oil and gas production, EPA has not yet applied these guidelines to 70 percent of wells in affected areas: low producing wells.

Although EPA is still soliciting input on whether to include low producers, with the climate change crisis happening now there’s no time for waffling.

The next administration must act to regulate all sources of air pollution from oil and gas production — including methane and associated toxics like benzene — that put in peril both the public health and the health of our climate.”

The EPA defines low-production wells as those wells that on average produce less than 15 barrel equivalents per day. They may be low-production but they are by no means low-emission.

According to recent studies: “Emissions from low production wells are disproportionately high relative to their production, and because these wells account for the large majority of existing sources (83% of existing oil wells and 74% of existing gas wells), it is critical that they are covered by a comprehensive leak detection and repair program.”

While the agency didn’t go so far as to exempt low-production wells, they did not include them in the CTGs this time around.

So, in a nutshell, the EPA Control Technique Guidelines apply to a fraction of the total oil & gas emissions profile. The guidelines are limited to old and aging equipment located in designated nonattainment areas.

When I put it that way they seem pathetically weak.

Yet we can remember a time, not all that long ago, when our complaints went unanswered, our warnings unheeded. We contacted the county, the CDPHE, and the EPA. We were told the brown cloud was caused by diesel truck traffic on I-70. We were told our sickness was “allergies.” We were even told we were imagining things.

The EPA Control Technique Guidelines fall far short of our goal. What is significant is what they represent — a beginning. They tell us the EPA is not only listening but they acknowledge the pollution, and they are beginning to focus on the problem at the source. The EPA continues to collect data on oil & gas emissions and promises more guidelines in 2017.

In the meantime, you can be certain that teams from the Community Empowerment Project — aka Citizens Empowerment Project — will return to the gas fields across the country exposing infrared emissions from oil & gas sites and facilities with FLIR cameras.

Now that we have the EPA’s attention it is up to us to keep the pressure on to target ALL existing sources of methane and toxic pollution from ALL oil & gas infrastructure and operations at ALL locations in the U.S.

Sources: Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Law Review, Earthworks, and EPA

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