Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels – when it is being burned as fuel.
But not necessarily when it is being produced, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has proposed new regulations it says will reduce or eliminate pollution-causing emissions from the natural gas production process, from the well to the consumer.
Much of the pollution comes from gases escaping from the wells – during initial capping and preparation for attachment to transmission systems, and from the transmission systems themselves. The EPA proposal would have the industry capture those escaping gases and add them to what it already sells to consumers.
“The estimated revenues from selling the gas that currently goes to waste are significant,” the agency said on July 28 in its published proposal, “so much so that today’s proposed rule is anticipated to quickly result in a net savings of nearly $30 million annually,”
Thirty million dollars is not a lot of money in an industry where profits are in the billions and seemingly regularly setting records. And the EPA estimates the new regulations will capture only about 25 percent of what currently is escaping.
But it is a start.
The rules, set to be adopted in February 2012, would be the first federal standards to be applied to natural gas production by hydraulic fracturing – fracking. The process is one in which a well is drilled down about one and a half miles, then turned horizontally for up to an additional mile.
A mixture of water, specially formulated sand, and a solution of chemicals is forced into the shale under pressure. It forces cracks in the deep shale layers to separate, releasing gas formed by the decomposition of carbon-based life forms that existed when the area was under thousands of feet of sea water.
When the gas is released, it forces the fracking fluid back up the pipe, where it is collected for treatment or reuse, and the well is capped with fittings to attach it to pipelines to take it toward the eventual customer. During the capping, the EPA says, volatile organic compounds, as well as methane benzene, ethylbenzene and n-hexane, escape and can be harmful to health and atmosphere.
Along the transmission path are compressors, which boost the gas flow toward its destination. The proposed regulations will cut leakage at the compressors and system valves.
The leakage problem is well documented. Three separate studies in Texas, Colorado and Wyoming natural gas fracking regions have found smog-producing and greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas production to be roughly equivalent to the emissions of all the cars and trucks on the respective regions’ highways.
In March, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality reported smog related to natural gas production to be worse than the worst day in Los Angeles, Calif. in all of 2010..
In other words, natural gas burns cleaner, but when production-related emissions are included, it may be worse than gasoline and diesel.
Similar effects have not yet been proven in Pennsylvania. A DEP study of air quality near Marcellus Shale drilling sites in four counties found no emissions at levels that would threaten the health of nearby residents or workers.
On the other hand, the industry is relatively new in the Commonwealth and virtually all the wells are being drilled in sparsely populated mountainous areas. Like the effluent from western Pennsylvania coal-fired electricity plants, any escaped gases would be diluted and blown toward New Jersey and New England, where they would exacerbate problems in those states while appearing to cause little harm at their source.
Wyoming has put regulations on its natural gas industry; other states are doing the same.
Last week’s announcement from the EPA seems to ‘present at least a partial solution for natural gas production on federally controlled land.
Pennsylvania should consider the value of getting ahead of the problem while it is still the new kid in the natural gas production game.
Photo by Tom Owad
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