WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is issuing the first-ever national standards to control air pollution from gas wells that are drilled using a method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but not without making concessions to the oil and gas industry.
The regulation is expected to be officially announced later Wednesday.
President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address strongly backed natural gas drilling as a clean energy source, and recently announced an executive order calling for coordination of federal regulation to ease burdens on producers. But he has come under criticism by the industry and Republicans for policies they say discourage energy development.
Much of the air pollution from fracked gas wells is vented when the well transitions from drilling to actual production, a three- to 10-day process which is referred to as "completion." An earlier version of the rule limiting air pollution from gas wells would have required companies to install pollution-reducing equipment immediately after the rule was finalized.
Administration officials who briefed The Associated Press in advance of Wednesday's announcement said drillers now would be given an additional two years to employ technology to reduce emissions of smog- and soot-forming pollutants during that stage. The Environmental Protection Agency will require drillers to burn off gas in the meantime, an alternative that can release smog-forming nitrogen oxides, but will still reduce overall emissions.
Industry groups had pushed hard for the delay, saying the equipment to reduce pollution at the wellhead during completion was not readily available. About 20,000 wells a year are being fracked, a process where water, chemicals and sand are injected at high pressure underground to release trapped natural gas.
"We believe that industry was correct in that we needed to have a ramp-up period," said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity since the announcement wasn't yet official.
Besides the new standards for oil and gas wells, the EPA also on Wednesday updated existing rules for natural gas processing plants, storage tanks and transmission lines that will reduce amounts of cancer-causing air pollution, such as benzene, and also reduce methane - the main ingredient in natural gas, but also one of the most potent global warming gases.
There were other changes made since the EPA proposed the rule last July under a court order that stemmed from a lawsuit brought by environmental groups.
Wells drilled in low-pressure areas, such as coalbed methane reserves, would be exempt because they release less pollution during completion. And companies that choose to re-fracture wells using the pollution-reducing equipment prior to the January 2015 deadline would not be covered by other parts of the regulation.
Since companies could capture the natural gas and sell it, the EPA estimates that they would save about $11-$19 million a year starting in 2015.