One year ago, Earthworks, the environmental advocacy organization I work for, launched the Citizens Empowerment Project to document the effects of fracking on air quality in across the country. With the help of a special thermal camera that detects and visualizes the presence of harmful gases, people near fracking sites across the country can now confirm what they have known for years to be true: Oil and gas development is polluting their air.
This pollution includes Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, a known carcinogen. These pollutants contribute to smog, which can trigger a variety of health problems such as asthma. Air pollution is a problem at almost every point along the development chain, from the well pad to the pipeline and beyond. But until now, state rules to protect families living near such sites have been spotty and largely unenforced. And there are few national protections that safeguard our air from fracking and related development.
Earlier this week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally took a big step to curb this pollution across the United States. It announced commonsense requirements that would control the health-harming air emissions from oil and gas development. The Methane Pollution Standard sets the first national limits on methane emissions from new and modified facilities including well pads, compressor stations and storage facilities. The rule would require industry to use cost-effective technologies to capture leaks, flares and other releases. Because toxic pollution hitchhikes along with oil and gas methane pollution, the rule addresses two problems at once.
The climate benefits of the rule are crucial as well. Methane is more than 80 times stronger as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide (PDF). By plugging leaks and reducing emissions we are protecting both our health and the climate.
The EPA has the authority to issue these rules under Section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act. Congress granted EPA administrator Gina McCarthy the power to issue new source performance standards (NSPS) for any new stationary source she believes causes air pollution and endangers public health and welfare.
However, just going after the new wells is not good enough. Most of the pollution from oil and gas production — almost 90 percent — comes from existing sources. Fortunately, Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set emissions standards for existing sources, too, whenever they regulate new sources. This 111(d) review is not optional. Once the rule for new sources is finalized, the next president should not delay in addressing the pressing source of this pollution: the leaking wells and pipelines and other infrastructure we already have. Communities living with the poisonous fumes spewing from these facilities deserve to benefit from the same protections the EPA is proposing for neighborhoods near new and modified facilities.
President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan calls for reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025, and we have promised the United Nations that we will reduce our overall greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels over the same time period. In order to achieve these goals, we not only need to reduce methane from existing sources of oil and gas pollution — we need to kick our fossil fuel habit completely.
To protect our clean air for generations to come, we must expedite the transition to renewable energy immediately. Recent studies show that clean energy is cost-competitive with oil and gas. There are well-articulated plans showing how individual states can power themselves using energy that is less harmful to public health and that steers us away from climate catastrophe. The EPA’s proposed rule is a first step in tackling methane pollution, but we need to urge our leaders in Washington to take decisive action to realize the renewable energy future we need now.