In response to a petition and lawsuit by environmental and open government organizations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will propose regulations requiring natural gas processing plants to start reporting the toxic chemicals they release.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, more than 551 plants processed more than 19 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2014, a record high and 32 percent increase over the last 10 years. EPA estimates that more than half of these plants would meet the size thresholds for reporting benzene (a carcinogen) as well as formaldehyde, hexane, and other toxic air and water pollution to the federal Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). The TRI is an online public database to which most other industries have had to report for more than 20 years.
EPA revealed its decision in a letter sent via email to the Environmental Integrity Project and nine partner organizations that sued the agency in January 2015 over its decades-long failure to require the oil and gas extraction industry its pollution to the federal government and public. The lawsuit followed an October 2012 petition in which EIP and seventeen co-petitioner organizations requested that EPA add the industry to the TRI.
“The oil and gas industry releases an enormous amount of toxic pollutants every year, second only to power plants in emissions,” said Adam Kron, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. “With this decision, EPA is taking an important step in the right direction. Public reporting to the Toxics Release Inventory allows communities to measure environmental impacts and plan for their future. It also motivates companies to reduce their toxic footprint, and provides insight into how well our environmental laws are working.”
The Environmental Integrity Project had filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Effective Government, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture), the Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Earthworks, the Responsible Drilling Alliance, and Texas Campaign for the Environment. In April, EPA committed that it would provide a formal response to the petition by October 30, 2015.
“Communities near drilling deserve to know which toxic chemicals the oil and gas industry releases,” said Aaron Mintzes, policy advocate for Earthworks. “EPA's decision today will help hold this industry accountable. While we prefer EPA require reporting industry-wide, this step will provide the public a better understanding of the toxic contaminates in their communities.”
Under EPA’s forthcoming proposal, gas processing plants would have to start reporting their emissions of toxic chemicals including xylenes (which can cause breathing problems, headaches, and fatigue), formaldehyde (which is a carcinogen and damages the respiratory system) and benzene (which can cause cancer).
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy wrote in her response to the environmental organizations: “The addition of natural gas processing facilities to TRI would meaningfully increase the information available to the public and further the purposes of (the TRI law) EPCRA § 313.” She added: “EPA estimates that natural gas processing facilities in the U.S. manufacture, process, or otherwise use more than 25 different TRl-listed chemicals.”
Not included in EPA’s decision are well sites, compressor stations, pipelines, and other smaller facilities that employ fewer than 10 people.
Congress established the Toxic Release Inventory in 1986 to inform the public about the release of sometimes carcinogenic chemicals (such as benzene) from industries in the wake of the deadly 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, in which toxic gases killed thousands of local residents.
“The TRI is a critical tool for providing pollution information to the public,” said John Noël, National Oil & Gas Campaigns Coordinator for Clean Water Action. “Communities have a right to know about oil and gas related impacts on water, air and land.”
In 2012, EPA estimated that the oil and gas extraction industry emits at least 127,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year, all of which are TRI-listed chemicals. Based on these estimates, the oil and gas extraction industry releases more toxic pollution to the air than any other industry except for power plants.
“EPA’s decision to propose adding natural gas processing plants to the list of industries covered by Toxics Release Inventory reporting will add significantly to the public’s understanding of the toxic chemicals released by these facilities into the environment,” said George Jugovic, Jr., chief counsel at PennFuture. “It is important that the public continue to demand complete transparency about the nature and level of toxic chemicals released by the shale gas industry, from beginning to end.”