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While air quality as a whole has been improving across the United States over the past few decades, many areas that are ground zero for the nation’s expanding oil and gas industry have shown an increase in dangerous pollutants. In fact, states with substantial drilling activities saw worsening air quality recently, according to the American Lung Association’s last State of the Air report.
That’s because the oil and gas industry is the largest industrial source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which mix with NOX and sunlight to form ground-level ozone, also known as smog. Additionally, existing oil and gas sources do not face comprehensive nationwide limits for this type of pollution.
This smog has tangible effects, though. In late September, the Clean Air Task Force released a report detailing that the amount of smog forming emissions from the oil and gas sector could lead to as many as 750,000 asthma attacks. The report, called “Gasping for Breath,” similarly documents that these emissions could lead to more than 500,000 days of school missed and 2,000 asthma-related emergency room visits. Accompanying the report is an interactive map, developed by Earthworks, which displays data about the location of active oil and gas wells, and areas of threats to public health.
This week, in a move forward, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalized emission reduction guidelines for states to address ozone smog emissions from oil and gas operations, known as Control Technique Guidelines. While this may seem like a small technical step, the Guidelines will bring urgently needed health protections to citizens living adjacent to or downwind of oil and gas operations.
Once fully implemented by states, the Guidelines are estimated to reduce VOC emissions by about 80,000 tons per year, methane emissions by about 200,000 tons per year, and other hazardous air pollutants by about 3,000 tons per year. The Guidelines include recommendations for storage tanks, controllers and pumps, and compressors, and include leak detection and repair requirements, utilizing available technologies and common-sense approaches that help save natural gas that otherwise would go to waste.
Standards like these to reduce smog pollution can have a big impact. In Wyoming, for instance, a key oil and gas region started to experience poor air quality as drilling expanded. However, after that part of the state adopted common sense protections to reduce air pollution from the oil and gas industry, smog levels started to improve, providing health benefits to nearby communities.
When the prevalence of smog in a given area exceeds national health-based standards, states are required to submit a plan to EPA on how it will bring the area’s air quality back to healthy levels. That’s why the new Guidelines, which build on lessons learned from leading states including Colorado and Wyoming, are so important.
In their plans to cut air pollution from the oil and gas industry, States can use the ready-to-adopt, cost-effective blueprint laid out in the new Guidelines to achieve required emission reductions and protect the health of communities and families.
These Guidelines, which apply to areas with moderate and severe smog pollution, will especially benefit communities in Pennsylvania and Texas, where ozone pollution is endangering communities and state regulations haven’t kept pace with the rapid growth in oil and gas development.
The Guidelines are a good and important step forward to protect communities from smog-forming pollution, but there are key additional steps EPA can take in the near-term to strengthen the guidelines and improve the measures at states’ disposal to improve air quality.
For example, in its draft Guidelines, EPA proposed exempting lower-producing wells, which account for over 70% of existing wells and can be associated with substantial emissions. Fortunately, the agency declined to finalize this exemption. In the final guidelines EPA has sought additional information on how best to address these sources, and we urge the agency to move forward expeditiously to close the harmful pollution loophole to protect the health of our communities and families.
Over 12 million Americans live within a half-mile from oil and gas facilities, and many more live downwind from the smog caused by these operations. These communities urgently need the clean air protections that these new Control Technique Guidelines will begin to deliver. Even so, they are just one piece of the clean-air puzzle, and we must move forward toward final, comprehensive standards that address both new and existing sources of pollution, without exceptions.