EPA sets 'fracking' emission limits

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WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency issued its first-ever regulations Wednesday to curtail air pollution from natural gas wells that use a controversial technique known as hydraulic fracturing, but gave the industry a three-year period to install technology to capture some of the worst pollutants.

The regulations would limit emissions of volatile organic compounds, which react with sunlight to create smog. They would also limit emissions of carcinogens and methane, the main component of natural gas and a climate change contributor.

The rules are expected to affect 11,000 new wells a year that undergo "fracking" and another 1,200 or so that are re-fracked to boost production.

Much of the air pollution at gas sites escapes during the well-completion phase, after drilling but before the well is linked to pipelines to take it to processing plants and closer to market, said Robin Cooley, a lawyer for Earthjustice, which filed suit to get the new pollution standards.

Methane is exponentially more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas if it is simply vented into the air. Companies now let the methane escape, burn it, or capture and sell it as natural gas, a process referred to as "green completion." Nearly half of all companies that now frack use green-completion technologies.

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The oil industry complained that if a national standard went into effect this year, not enough companies could provide the green completion technology to meet the increased demand, making the rule more expensive to comply with. After January 2015, all fracking sites will have to capture their methane.

"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," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

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