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EPA, Environmental Groups Pursue New Sources of Fracking Regulation

By: Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz

With the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) largely barred from regulating hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) under the Safe Drinking Water Act, regulatory proponents have turned their attention to alternate means of controlling the industry’s environmental impacts.  Last month, EPA proposed the first federal rules limiting air emissions from fracking operations, and on August 4, a coalition of environmental groups petitioned EPA to require the testing and disclosure of fracking fluids under the Toxic Substances Control Act (“TSCA”).  Others have turned to the courts to compel greater environmental review of fracking’s impacts, with a new suit filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York late last week.    

On July 28, 2011, EPA proposed a suite of new Clean Air Act rules governing the emission of volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”), sulfur dioxide, and air toxics from oil and gas extraction and transmission activities, including the first federal air standards for hydraulically fractured wells.  During fracking, VOC emissions are often elevated during “flowback” periods, when fluids injected into wells return to the surface carrying contaminants that can evaporate into the air.  EPA’s proposed rules would require wells to separate and capture natural gas and hydrocarbons during flowback, reducing emissions of VOCs by an estimated 95 percent.

Additional EPA rules may be forthcoming in response to a petition filed last week by Earthjustice on behalf of over 100 non-profit groups.  The petition asks EPA to issue regulations under TSCA requiring manufacturers and processors of “chemical substances and mixtures used in oil and gas exploration or production,” including fracking fluids, to conduct testing on the toxicity and environmental and health impacts of their products and disclose the results to EPA.  If the petition is denied, Earthjustice has suggested it would challenge EPA’s determination in court.

Fracking regulation is also moving forward on the state and regional level, with the Delaware River Basin Commission (“DRBC”) – a regional body consisting of four states and the Army Corps of Engineers – proposing rules governing hydraulic fracturing siting and operations in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.  New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has filed suit in federal court seeking to enjoin the finalization of those rules pending the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”).  On August 4, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Hudson Riverkeeper, and National Parks Conservation Association brought a similar suit in the same court.  Unlike New York, however, the environmental groups named DRBC as a defendant.   

The U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”), on behalf the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal defendants, recently announced its plans to move to dismiss New York’s lawsuit on sovereign immunity, standing and ripeness grounds.  There are also questions as to whether the proposal of a regional body is a “major federal action” governed by NEPA – an argument that DOJ reserved the right to raise at a later date as an additional ground for dismissal.  A pre-motion conference on DOJ’s request for dismiss is scheduled for Wednesday, August 10.

1 Comment

  1. The EPA’s proposed rule contains a call for comments on whether third party verification of the 1) data collection; 2) data compilation; and 3)calculations is a proven and effective means of assuring compliance with the proposed NSPS standards. In addition, the proposed rule is asking for comments on whether third party verifiers can be used as a clearinghouse for notifications, records and annual compliance certification regarding well completions. EPA estimates 20,000 well completions per year and it acknowledges that handling the records for this many completions can become an administrative burden on the agency. Completing a well generally consists of installing the well casing, installing the wellhead, and readying the well for production. The third party verifiers would be paid by the regulated industries.

    Third party verification is already widely and successfully used as a means to verify and validate GHG reduction claims. These programs work because the verifiers are highly trained and skilled. EPA’s rule is extremely vague on what type of accreditation will be required for verification. As such, the agency must be careful not encourage a system that would fail to produce competent validators. The requirements must contain a rigorous and systematic course of study to train, test and certify individuals as validators. This type of system already exists in GHG validation and mitigation work. This process should be adopted by EPA to avoid spurious and unreliable data and reporting. Unreliable and spurious data and reports generated by under-qualified verifiers will eviscerate the regulatory program. A cost effective and credible administrator of the accreditation system is already in place. ANSI’s voluntary standardization system results in consistent, predictable and unambiguous assessments. ANSI’s GHG accreditation program assures integrity and consistency in emission verification across industry sectors and geographical borders. Additionally, a strict conflict of interest code will need to be adopted by EPA to maintain the independence of the third party verifiers. This type of work cannot be completed by in-house personnel or by State or Federal employees. To use either would create a serious COI issue. Thus, EPA should be very clear on this issue and propose to adopt existing third party GHG verification and validation standards for its verification program in order to avoid these issues and uphold the credibility of its proposed regulatory program.

    Comment by Art Clarke — August 9, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

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