Drilling releases a number of harmful air pollutants, which are making skies smoggier, hazier, and more toxic to breathe throughout the United States, and fuels global warming. Making things worse, federal clean air standards for oil and gas drilling are outdated. These standards are not only illegal, but endanger public health and the climate.
"Federal clean air safeguards for oil and gas drilling have failed to keep pace with technology and science, putting our children, communities, and the climate at risk," said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. "Oil and gas drilling should not come at the expense of our health and our future generations."
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to review and update clean air regulations every eight years. EPA has failed to update two sets of clean air regulations it originally issued in 1985 and 1999, and has failed altogether to issue a required third set of regulations. The result is a number of oil and gas operations and pollutants spewed by those operations are not limited in any way. Even oil and gas operations covered by the outdated regulations are not required to use the latest technologies to safeguard public health and the climate.
In the Rocky Mountain West, where oil and gas drilling is booming, the impact of the EPA's footdragging is staggering.
In Garfield County, near the resort town of Aspen, oil and gas drilling has increased by more than 132 percent since 2004, and there are more than 7,000 wells. According to the state of Colorado, oil and gas operations in Garfield County are responsible for 77 percent of all benzene -- a known carcinogen -- in the air, whereas nationwide cars and trucks emit 70 percent of all benzene air pollution.
Studies by the state show that Garfield County residents face higher health risks because of benzene, while a recent risk assessment stated that benzene in the air posed an "unacceptable" cancer risk. The increase has been fueled by EPA's failure to update clean air regulations that it issued in 1985 Those regulations do not apply to oil and gas wells.
San Juan County in northwestern New Mexico -- with more than 18,000 oil and gas wells -- is the largest producing natural gas field in the United States. Many wells in San Juan County produce hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs. At low levels, hydrogen sulfide can cause difficulty breathing and headaches and at high levels can be lethal. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management reports there are more than 375 wells that release hydrogen sulfide in San Juan County. Federal clean air regulations do not limit hydrogen sulfide from individual wells.
Elsewhere in the West, oil and gas drilling is linked to rising smog levels in western Wyoming and metropolitan Denver, haze in pristine wilderness areas and national parks, and to climate change. Drilling releases large amounts of methane (otherwise known as natural gas), a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In New Mexico and Wyoming, drilling activities are the second largest source of greenhouse gases.
"Oil and gas drilling operations have been exploding throughout the Rocky Mountain West. Yet in the face of this exponential growth, EPA has sat on its hands when it comes to issuing and updating required regulations to safeguard our communities from these operations" said Andrea Zaccardi, attorney with Earthjustice. "We can't allow EPA to jeopardize public health by failing to maintain up-to-date clean air regulations."
Nationwide, today's lawsuit will help protect communities in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and a number of other states where drilling is occurring.
"This suit is an important step toward securing lasting protecting of clean air throughout the nation," said Nichols. "With public health and the climate at stake, we need to make sure we're safe, not sorry."
The groups filing suit against the EPA include WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance. Earthjustice, a national public interest environmental law firm, is representing the groups. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C.
Andrea Zaccardi, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9623