On April 17th, EPA issued new rules designed to reduce air emissions from oil & gas operations, including wells drilling using hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"). The new federal standards (New Source Performance Standards -NSPS) are seen as the first significant new federal regulation governing fracking.
Some may wonder how gas wells generate air emissions. When a horizontal gas well is drilled and fracking is used, large amounts of water and some chemicals are pumped down the well to break up rock in the shale formations in order to release the gas for recovery. Prior to putting the well into production, the water and chemicals are removed. This is referred to as "flowback water."
When flow back water is recovered it is accompanied by gases, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and methane, which in most cases, is simply vented to the atmosphere.
Methane emissions from fracking has received significant attention recently due to the fact it is a potent greenhouse gas- 20 times more damaging than CO2 emissions.
EPA says that the oil & gas industry is the largest source of methane emissions in the U.S. making up approximately 40% of all methane emissions. Controlling VOC and methane emissions is what prompted EPA to issue the new federal standards.
EPA Delay's More Expensive Controls to 2015
EPA seeks to reduce air emissions from fracking by requiring, initially destruction of the gas and then recovery through "green completion." In a green completion, special equipment separates gas and liquid hydrocarbons from the flowback that comes from the well as it is being prepared for production. The gas and hydrocarbons can then be treated and used or sold.
EPA's draft rule would have mandated "green completion" as the best control technology. However, industry voiced strong concern that the equipment wasn't widely available and requiring this technology too quickly could impact production. In the final rule, EPA decided to delay the mandate for "green completion" until January 1, 2015.
Until 2015, producers must control emissions by using flares to burn off the VOCs and methane emissions. The flare must be able to eliminate 95% for the VOC emissions.
For more information:
- Text of the NSPS Final Rule (588 pages)
- EPA Fact Sheet regarding the rule
- EPA summary of requirements for natural as well sites
- EPA Summary of requirements relating to natural gas compressor stations
- EPA Summary of requirement relating to natural gas processing plants
- EPA Summary of requirements relating to natural gas gathering and boosting stations
- EPA Summary of requirements for oil production equipment