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July 29, 2011

The U.S. Department of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed new air quality standards to reduce harmful emissions from gas and oil drilling operations, including emissions from hydraulic fracturing.

The drilling and operation of oil and gas wells releases benzene and other potentially cancer-causing toxins into the air, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to smog. Smog can irritate the respiratory system, aggravate asthma and reduce lung function.

The proposed standards would reduce the amount of VOCs the oil and gas industry releases into the air by reducing methane emissions, including a 95% reduction in VOC emissions from hydraulic fracturing. Methane is the principal component of natural gas and a major greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

The process of hydraulic fracturing has created a natural gas boom in states such as Pennsylvania where it facilitates natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale formation. Residents near natural gas wells where energy companies used fracking technology have experienced water well contamination with methane.

“This important announcement addresses a major public health issue,” said Sierra Club’s Natural Gas Reform Campaign Director Deb Nardone. “Natural gas drilling has been spewing vast amounts of toxins into our air every day without limits, sickening families and communities. This proposed protection would help reign in life-threatening pollution from gas drilling for the first time and is a significant step forward in cleaning up a dirty industry.”

The proposal relies on the use of already existing technology to capture and sell natural gas that currently escapes into the air during drilling, extraction, storage and transport of natural gas. Such technology is already in use and in some states required.

“This administration has been clear that natural gas is a key component of our clean energy future, and the steps announced today will help ensure responsible production of this domestic energy source,” said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. “Reducing these emissions will help cut toxic pollution that can increase cancer risks and smog that can cause asthma attacks and premature death – all while giving these operators additional product to bring to market.”

The new oil and natural gas air quality standards are in response to a lawsuit filed against the EPA by two advocacy groups, WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, who claimed the agency failed to review toxic air standards for the oil and natural gas industry as required by the Clean Air Act.

“We applaud the EPA for stepping up and protecting our nation’s air quality. These rules will not only stop the loss of a lot of natural gas that is currently lost in the production and distribution processes, but will greatly reduce the burden on the communities that supply this fuel for the nation,” said Dan Randolph, Executive Director for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “We encourage the EPA to continue to update the regulations that are necessary to reduce the heavy burden on our communities’ and nation’s air quality from oil and gas production and distribution. While this is a good first step, a lot more is needed.”

Earlier this week, the EPA postponed a ruling on a new air standard for ozone for a fourth time.

The New York Times reports that the oil and gas industry is fighting any stricter limits on ozone set by the EPA. The American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade organization for the oil and gas industry, released a report criticizing the EPA’s calculation of health benefits a stricter ozone standard would create. The API says the cost of conforming to stricter ozone standards would destroy millions of jobs.

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