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 Making things worse, federal clean air standards for oil and gas drilling are outdated.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 Even oil and gas operations covered by the outdated regulations are not required to use the latest technologies to safeguard public health and the climate.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.
- The EPA has failed to review and update two sets of clean air regulations and to issue a third set of regulations related to oil and gas drilling, in violation of the Clean Air Act.
- The first regulations are called "New Source Performance Standards," and ensure that sources of air pollution use the latest technology to reduce any pollutants that endanger public health and welfare, such as hydrogen sulfide. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must review and update New Source Performance Standards every eight years. Standards related to oil and gas drilling were first promulgated in 1985 and have not been updated since. The 1985 regulations only limit air pollution from natural gas processing plants, not from oil and gas well-head operations. They also do not address greenhouse gases, or global warming pollution.
- The second regulations are called "Maximum Achievable Control Technology" standards, and ensure that industry reduce toxic air emissions -- such as benzene -- using the most effective technology available. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has to review and update Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards every eight years. Standards related to oil and gas drilling were first promulgated in 1999 and have not been updated since. The 1999 regulations do not address toxic air pollution from a number of operations related to oil and gas drilling.
- The third regulations are called "Residual Risk" standards, and ensure that industry reduces toxic air emissions to safeguard public health. Residual Risk standards are typically stronger than Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must determine whether to issue Residual Risk standards within eight years of promulgating Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards. It has been more than nine years since EPA promulgated Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards related to oil and gas drilling in 1999. EPA has failed to determine whether to issue Residual Risk Standards and has failed to issue such standards. Consequently, there are currently no residual risk standards that protect the public health from toxic air pollution related to oil and gas drilling.