This week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to require natural gas processing plants to start complying with federal toxic chemical disclosure laws, in response to a lawsuit and petition filed by a collection of environmental and transparency advocates.
A record-setting 19 trillion cubic feet of gas was processed by these plants — over 550 of which dot the country — last year, representing a rise in volume of 32 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Energy Department. The EPA now estimates that over half of these plants release more than 10,000 pounds of toxic chemicals each year, making their pollution substantial enough to require federal attention.
But for decades, these plants were not required to report their toxic air and water emissions to the federal government’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), after EPA decided in 1997 to defer a decision about whether the oil and gas industry should adhere to those rules.
Secrecy surrounding the oil and gas production has drawn national attention over the past several years, including the role of secret settlements in lawsuits over fracking and the industry’s broad use of trade secrecy privileges to keep information about chemical identities under wraps.
At the same time, pressure from environmental groups on the EPA to regulate the industry has risen.
“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, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of nine organizations in January. “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 chemicals released by these plants are dangerous substances whose release many other industries are required to report to the federal government — and have for over 20 years — including benzene, a carcinogen that can be hazardous at a single part per billion, formaldehyde, hexane and xylenes.
“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.” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy wrote in a letter to the environmental groups that had filed suit. “EPA estimates that natural gas processing facilities in the U.S. manufacture, process, or otherwise use more than 25 different TRl-listed chemicals.”
Roughly a third of the 551 plants potentially covered by the EPA’s rule are located in Texas, where a 2013 deadly explosion at the West Fertilizer plant killed 15 people and highlighted the lax oversight of dangerous facilities by state regulators.
Some in the coalition of organizations hailed the move as a victory, while others were disappointed that other infrastructure — including pipelines, compressor stations, and oil and gas well sites — were left out by the EPA’s announced plan to propose TRI rules for natural gas processing plants.
“While EPA’s proposal for processing plants is progress, those of us living atop the Marcellus Shale where unconventional drilling pads and compressor stations abound are disappointed by EPA‘s decision not to include those facilities,” said Barbara Jarmoska, treasurer of the Responsible Drilling Alliance.
The oil and gas industry had argued that it already makes some of the information about the chemicals used at fracked wells available voluntarily or under state rules through a website called FracFocus.
“Part of the rationale for [EPA’s history of leaving gas wells out of TRI] is based on the fact that most of the information required under TRI is already reported by producers to state agencies that make it publicly available,” FracFocus, a collection of self-reported data from oil and gas wells funded by America’s Natural Gas Alliance and the American Petroleum Institute, two industry associations, explains on its website. “Also, TRI reporting from the hundreds of thousands of oil and gas sites would overwhelm the existing EPA reporting system and make it difficult to extract meaningful data from the massive amount of information submitted.”
But the FracFocus site has been heavily criticized, with a 2013 Harvard study identifying “serious flaws” with the database, including unclear standards for when chemicals could be labeled trade secrets and an inability to compare data between different well sites.
In July, Pennsylvania announced that it would stop allowing oil and gas companies to make their state-required disclosures through FracFocus, citing difficulties involved in using the site’s data.
Like FracFocus, the TRI relies on data self-reported by companies, but the TRI database, which was established under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, is broadly used by first responders in the event of a crisis as well as members of the general public, and it includes information from a wide swath of different industries. It is also often used by environmental organizers to identify the worst polluters in a given region.
The information about air and water pollution from the oil and gas industry is especially important given the fast expansion of the onshore drilling rush, which has swept across the US over the past decade and left roughly one in four Americans living within a mile of an oil or gas well.
Every year, the oil and gas industry’s infrastructure releases thousands of tons of dangerous gasses into the environment.
“EPA estimates that the industry emits at least 127,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year, including benzene, xylenes, and hydrogen sulfide,” noted a 2012 EPA fact sheet. “This is more than any TRI-reporting industry except electric utilities, and equivalent to thirty percent of the total release of hazardous air pollutants reported to the TRI for 2010.”
And those estimates may be the tip of the iceberg. A total of 8.5 million tons of TRI-listed chemical releases were culled from air emission data in six states (Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming), according to a report released by the Environmental Integrity Project in January 2014.
“Our research shows that many of these oil and gas plants emit tens of thousands of pounds of toxic pollutants every year, but that data was hard to get and incomplete,” Eric Schaeffer, the group’s executive director, said when those findings were released.
The Environmental Integrity Project had filed its 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.
While the EPA’s plan to require disclosures about processing plants drew praise from the groups, some renewed their calls for the agency to expand its attention to emissions from the pipeline infrastructure currently being quickly built out in heavily-drilled areas.
“Recent studies indicate that fracking operations upwind are already polluting the air of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Gas companies are proposing a slew of new pipelines, compressor stations, and export facilities in the Mid-Atlantic region,” Anne Havemann, attorney for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said. “Our communities have a right to know the full picture of pollution risks we face.”
Photo Credit: Gas Processing Factory, via Shutterstock.