This past week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued final regulations to require oil and gas drillers to capture harmful air pollutants that escape from wells during drilling operations, and from natural gas storage facilities and pipelines. The final rule is a first, and it's good news. But the new rules take 2 and a half years to become effective. New York can and should do better.
Before the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that controversial method of extracting natural gas from far beneath the earth’s surface, most of us Northeasterners didn’t think much about where our natural gas was coming from. We also didn’t know much about the air pollution issues associated with drilling and storing and transporting natural gas. The air pollution problems exist for both conventional and fracking wells. And the problems have been around as long as natural has been around.
In a nutshell, many drillers are not careful enough to capture all of the gas escaping from the well head, storage facilities and distribution pipelines. What's in this gas? Well-known carcinogens like benzene, hexane and toluene. These volatile organic compounds also lead to smog. Natural gas itself, methane, is a potent global warming pollutant. It's nasty stuff.
EPA's new standards will require drillers to carry out "green completions" and to otherwise prevent leaks on their systems. The main problem with the rule is that it gives the natural gas industry 2 and a half years to comply--two years longer than necessary.
New York can do better. Those of you who have followed the natural gas drilling issue in New York know that the state has imposed a moratorium on new drilling permits until the Department of Environmental Conservation works out how to safeguard the state's environment. One of the key issues is air pollution.
The federal Clean Air Act and rules like those issued last week controlling pollution from natural gas operations set a minimum nationwide standard. States are free to impose more stringent requirements. And that is precisely what New York DEC should do when it allows fracking in New York.
New York should require immediate compliance with the federal standards and reject the election-year accommodation made by the White House that gave the industry two more years at the expense of human health and the environment. Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy may mean cutting environmental corners in favor of fossil fuel exploration and extraction, but New York knows better.
Why not just ban fracking altogether? We should be moving to make our society more energy efficient and shift over to renewable forms of energy, a process that will take some time in the best of scenarios. Until we shift to renewable energy we have to make hard choices about how to heat our homes and businesses and generate electric power. Natural gas is by far the cleanest fossil fuel--far better than coal and oil. And fracking is making natural gas inexpensive enough to drive many dirty coal plants out of business. They’ll take their acid-rain and smog-causing pollution with them.
Yet the fact that natural gas is better than coal and oil does not mean we shouldn't insist that the industry take every reasonable precaution to safeguard human health and the environment. Obama may be running for reelection this year, but Governor Cuomo is not. Air pollution from natural gas operations is not something New York should tolerate.
Franz Litz is the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center and Professor of Law at Pace Law School.
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