By Patrick D. Joyce

This week Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and 61 others filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency urging the Agency to list oil and gas wells using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) near urban areas as “area sources” under the Clean Air Act.

The petition comes days after EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy signed an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) seeking public comment on requiring industry to disclose the make-up of hydraulic fracturing chemical substances and mixtures. In the ANPR, Administrator McCarthy recognized the need to maximize data not only for EPA’s own risk assessment purposes, but also for transparency and public understanding.

The groups argue that classification of hydraulic fracturing wells and their associated equipment as area sources would allow EPA to better regulate air pollution released from an entire well field.  Area source classification allows EPA to aggregate emissions from a wide variety of individual sources where the individual source on its own may not violate air pollution standards. To be classified as part of an area source, each individual source must emit less than 10 tons per year of a single air toxic or less than 25 tons per year of a combination of air toxics.

The groups assert that EPA’s current rules, even taking into account EPA’s rules finalized in April of 2012, fail to adequately address air pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing activities. Specifically, they argue that the EPA is severely underestimating the amount and type of hazardous air pollutants emitted from fracking wells and that the current rules fail to adequately address emissions from most new wells and equipment leaks from new and existing wells. EPA is currently studying the effects of methane emissions from fracking wells, but the groups argue this is not enough. In addition, the groups call for EPA to require use of existing technologies such as green completions, closed loop recovery systems, and reductions in flaring to help reduce area source emissions.

In the petition, the groups refer to a November 18, 2011 report by the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board’s Shale Gas Production Subcommittee identifying steps to be taken to increase public and environmental health in areas where hydraulic fracturing techniques are used. The Subcommittee report specifically recommends creating programs designed to capture data on the types of air toxics released from hydraulic fracturing activities and calls for the increased use of available technologies to reduce emissions; all requests the groups make in their petition.

The groups point out that in areas with heavy drilling activity near heavily populated areas, classification of oil and gas wells and their associated equipment as area sources would allow public health concerns, such as haze and soot from diesel emissions, to be addressed. For example, according to Earthjustice, in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, fracking techniques have been used in drilling nearly 9,000 wells in the past five years. While each individual well may not emit much in the way of air toxics, aggregating and addressing air pollution from 9,000 wells as a group would provide substantial public health benefits.

This petition was filed pursuant to Administrative Procedure Act 5 U.S.C. §553(e), which allows “an interested person the right to petition for the issuance, amendment, or repeal of a rule.” The next step is for the EPA to review and respond to the petition; the groups requested a response from the EPA within 180 days of filing.