by Lena Groeger, ProPublica
The Environmental Protection Agency issued the first-ever national air pollution regulations for fracking on Wednesday. First proposed in July 2011, the final rules have been welcomed by environmental groups as a much-needed initial move in reducing pollution and protecting public health from the toxic chemicals involved in the oil and natural gas drilling process. But many cautioned it was just a first step.
“It sets a floor for what the industry needs to do,” said attorney Erik Schlenker-Goodrich of the Western Environmental Law Center. “The reality is we can do far better.”
Over the past few years, more information has come out about fracking’s potential harms to the environment and human health, particularly relating to the risk of groundwater contamination. In addition to the many potentially toxic components of the highly pressurized fluid injected into the ground during the natural gas drilling process, fracking can also release cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and greenhouse gases like methane into the air. The federal government has made moves to tighten regulations, and we’ve chronicled the history of those regulations.
The EPA’s new rules don’t cover most of those issues. Instead, they address a single problem with natural gas: air pollution.
“These rules do not resolve chronic water, public health and other problems associated with fracking and natural gas,” Schlenker-Goodrich said.
The agency is actually barred from regulating the impact of fracking on groundwater because, in 2005, Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act. Congressional proposals to give the EPA more oversight have so far failed.
With the new rules on air pollution, the EPA rejected an industry request to exempt some wells with low emissions of toxic compounds but did give drilling companies more time to comply. Notably, the final version provides a two-and-a-half-year transition period (rather than the 60 days in the original proposal) that gives drilling companies until 2015 to comply with the strictest regulations.