Environmental Groups and EPA Reach Agreement on Updating Nationwide Oil and Gas Drilling Air Pollution Limits

Clean air, climate, communities on track for greater protection throughout U.S.


Robin Cooley, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9611
Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians, (303) 573-4898, ex t.1303
Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance, (505) 360-8994

WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance today announced a legal settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that promises to lead to a major overhaul of federal regulations limiting air pollution from oil and gas drilling operations nationwide.

“Clean air is literally being drilled away by the oil and gas industry in all corners of this country,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “Today’s agreement promises to hold the industry accountable and put the nation on track for cleaner air, a safer climate, and greater protection of public health.”

In January of 2009, Earthjustice, representing WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, filed suit against the EPA over its failure to update federal regulations limiting air pollution from oil and gas drilling operations. These operations release a number of harmful pollutants that are making skies smoggier, hazier, and more toxic to breathe, and that are fueling global warming.

Current regulations for oil and gas drilling have failed to keep pace with science and technology. Some are more than 20 years old and fail to limit emissions of several toxic chemicals or greenhouse gases. Today’s agreement secures a commitment from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review and, if appropriate, update these federal clean air regulations by November 30, 2011.

“The oil and gas industry is held to outdated air quality standards that fail to address increased air pollution emissions from expedited drilling,” said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico Energy Coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “This settlement puts us on track to ensure clean air safeguards are updated to meet modern standards for protecting our health and welfare. This is essential for our communities.”

The impact of EPA’s failure to update oil and gas air quality regulations has been especially evident in the American West.

In western Colorado’s Garfield County, 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 the county are responsible for 77 percent of all benzene — a known carcinogen. Studies by the state show that Garfield County residents face higher health risks because of benzene from oil and gas operations, in some cases facing an “unacceptable” cancer risk. Current federal regulations fail to limit benzene and other toxic emissions from oil and gas operations.

San Juan County in northwestern New Mexico — with more than 18,000 oil and gas wells — is the second 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, yet current federal regulations do not limit hydrogen sulfide from individual wells.

Oil and gas drilling is also 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 poses myriad threats to public health and welfare, yet our federal regulations are riddled with cracks that fail to provide comprehensive protection,” said Robin Cooley, attorney with Earthjustice. “It’s time to fill those cracks and ensure that oil and gas drilling does not come at the expense of our prosperity.”

Today’s settlement will help protect communities in a number of states with oil and gas drilling operations, including California, New York, Pennsylvania, Alaska, and Texas. Because state air quality regulations must at least be as stringent as federal regulations, the settlement promises to provide an important safety net for public health.

“This settlement 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 settlement agreement was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C.

Background Information

  • Today’s settlement commits the EPA to review and, if appropriate, propose to update three sets of regulations by January 31, 2011 and to finalize updates by November 30, 2011.
  • The first regulations are called “New Source Performance Standards,” and ensure that the latest technology is used to reduce any pollutants that endanger public health and welfare, such as hydrogen sulfide, smog forming nitrogen oxide gases, and greenhouse gases like methane. Under the Clean Air Act, New Source Performance Standards must be reviewed and updated every eight years. Standards related to oil and gas drilling were first promulgated in 1985 and have not been updated since.
  • The second regulations are called “Maximum Achievable Control Technology” standards, and ensure that the most effective technology available is used to limit toxic air emissions—such as benzene.  Under the Clean Air Act, Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards must be reviewed and updated every eight years. Standards related to oil and gas drilling were first promulgated in 1999 and have not been updated since.
  • The third regulations are called “Residual Risk” standards, and ensure that toxic air emissions are reduced to fully safeguard public health. These standards address any “residual risk” to public health that exists after Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards are adopted. Under the Clean Air Act, Residual Risk standards must be issued within eight years after Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards. It has been 10 years, yet currently there are no residual risk standards to protect public health.

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