As regulators ask the public for comment on fracking rules, one set of rules won’t be under consideration.
By Gabe Rivin
From now until Sept. 15, North Carolinians will have the chance to raise their concerns about natural gas drilling during a public comment period.
In comments to the state, residents can address a number of draft rules for drilling, including the rules governing hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
But residents won’t have a chance to comment on one set of environmental rules that could have a large impact on the public’s health.
Those are the rules that govern air pollution at fracking sites, which, in the case of natural gas drilling, can be both acutely hazardous and carcinogenic.
North Carolina’s regulators, in fact, have opted not to write rules for air pollution. Instead, the state will rely solely on federal rules written by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Environmentalists have praised those rules as a good first step. But they, along with drilling regulators, have also questioned whether the rules will be comprehensive, and whether the rules will offer loopholes for the drillers that could come to North Carolina as early as the spring of 2015.
Why regulators opted out of rulemaking
The state’s Mining and Energy Commission is developing the vast majority of drilling rules. This commission was established by SB 820, the 2012 bill that set the state on course to develop its first-ever drilling industry.
Since then, the MEC has drafted a large bundle of rules that govern gas drilling, including the requirements for wastewater and the minimum distances between gas wells and homes. These are the rules currently up for public comment.
By now, the MEC commissioners have become experts in the regulation of gas drilling. But SB 820 gave responsibility for air-pollution rules to another state commission.
That commission, the Environmental Management Commission, has not adopted any air rules for gas drillers. Nor does it have immediate plans to write rules, according to Benne Hutson, the commission’s chairman.
He said the EMC made that decision after hearing presentations last November by staff from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Division of Air Quality.
“The recommendation from the Division of Air Quality was that the regulations currently in place, which were equivalent to the EPA regulations, were sufficient for the regulatory purposes,” Hutson said.
The division’s deputy director, Mike Abraczinskas, explained that North Carolina had automatically adopted the EPA’s air rules, since state rules reference them. The EPA finalized its gas rules in 2012.
Abraczinskas recognized that other states had seen increases in air pollution as a result of drilling. But he recommended that the state rely on the EPA’s rules rather than developing any new, state-specific rules.
“What our experience will be in North Carolina will be a different era,” he said, according to the November meeting’s minutes. “It will be an era when these rules will be in place fully implemented at the time that this activity first occurs.
“At this time, our division is not recommending any changes to existing rules in this context and we’re not recommending any new rules.”
Hutson said that he didn’t believe the General Assembly had wanted the EMC to develop additional rules.
“I don’t think it was the intent of the legislature to go through the rulemaking process to adopt rules when there were already rules on the book,” he said.
What the EPA’s rules cover
Natural gas drilling can be an abundant source of air pollution, according to a growing body of research by government agencies and universities. Researchers have found hazardous air pollution at nearly every phase of the process – from the construction of the well to the actual drilling to the movement of gas across the country.
But the EPA rules focus on a narrow segment of air pollution. At the heart of the rules is a requirement that drillers use so-called green completions to reduce their pollution.
“It’s the point that the well backflow begins – i.e., the gas starts to come up out of the hole and starts to produce,” Abraczinskas said in an interview with North Carolina Health News. “At that phase, these new rules now require that that gas is captured.”
After a well is drilled and hydraulically fractured, gas rises to the surface. But the gas can reach the surface before drillers route it to transmission pipelines, according to a paper published by a cohort of university and government researchers in the academic journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Some drillers have released the gas into the air. Drillers refer to this as “venting” the gas. Others burn, or “flare,” the gas, in what can remain a continuous stream of fire.
These two processes disperse volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene and xylenes, according to the researchers.
These compounds have proven to be harmful to human health. Benzene, according to the EPA, is known to cause leukemia.
The EPA says that inhaling low amounts of toluene can cause fatigue, headaches and nausea. Chronic exposure can also cause cerebral atrophy and respiratory irritation.
Volatile organic compounds can also increase atmospheric ozone, or smog, which causes respiratory problems for children and the elderly. One study, which focused on a sparsely populated area in Utah, found that pollution from oil and gas drilling caused a “significant production of ozone.”
Flaring can raise other problems for nearby residents’ health.
“In addition to the pollution that flaring can mean, it’s also incredibly stressful for folks nearby to see a big ball of fire in the sky,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a public-health scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “At some of these oil and gas sites, when there isn’t a place for the excess gas to be collected, the flares can go on for a really long time and can be really loud.”
Loopholes for drillers?
For some environmentalists, the EPA’s rules are good news.
“The EPA regulations are a huge step in the right direction for reducing emission of VOCs and hazardous air pollutants from oil and gas operations,” said David Kelly, a senior analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund.
The rules mostly prohibit flaring or venting. Instead, beginning in 2015, most drillers will have to use green-completion technology to capture their emissions.
Abraczinskas said that exemptions from those requirements would be rare.
“If there are certain situations where it turns out that you can’t [capture gas], then you can flare it,” he said. “And if there are certain considerations when you can’t flare it, then you can vent it. But those are very rare instances.”
But that assertion is up for debate.
Environmentalists and regulators at the MEC have questioned whether EPA’s green-completion rules will apply to all North Carolina drillers. They point to language that appears to allow flaring at future North Carolina wells.
And, beyond the possible leniencies in EPA’s rules, environmentalists worry that the rules are simply not enough – that drilling will generate too much air pollution near people’s homes, and that without further regulations, North Carolinians’ health could be at risk.
A continuation of this story will look at the disagreements, among regulators and environmentalists, about the sorts of exemptions that North Carolina drillers may be allowed to claim, as well as a number of potential shortcomings in the EPA rules.