64 groups ask for gas industry emission restrictions

Federal petition cites air pollutants, dangerous chemicals

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Sixty-four environment and community organizations have asked the federal government to limit air pollution emissions from the rapidly expanding oil and gas industry that are impacting many of the nation's urban areas, including Pittsburgh.

According to a petition, filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday by Earthjustice, a public interest law organization representing the groups, 150 million Americans in 180 metropolitan areas live near oil and gas wells or in shale gas plays where hazardous chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and respiratory disease are released into the air. And an estimated 45,000 new wells are expected to be drilled each year through 2035.

"This oil and gas expansion has brought drilling activities closer to heavily populated areas, including the Dallas/Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Los Angeles metropolitan regions," the petition states, "placing drill rigs near homes, schools, and workplaces and posing an ever increasing threat to public health."

Submitted under provisions of the federal Clean Air Act, the petition asks the EPA to establish an "area source category" for limiting pollutants from oil and gas wells and associated compressor stations, equipment and pipelines, and to set national emission standards for hazardous air pollutant emissions from those sources. It also asks the EPA to take public comments on the pollution issues raised by the petition and issue a response within 180 days.

"Pennsylvania residents living near shale gas operations deserve much stronger public health protections from EPA," said Matt Walker, community outreach director of Clean Air Council. "EPA's current standards for flaring at new oil and gas wells do not address the many other types of ongoing operations at oil and gas wells that emit significant amounts of toxic air pollution."

Travis Windle and Patrick Creighton, spokesmen for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a drilling industry lobbying organization, said air quality in Pennsylvania has improved significantly in recent years due to the increased development and use of natural gas from shale. Mr. Creighton also cited new state regulations aimed at reducing emissions at compressor stations, requirements for leak detection and monitoring, and use of "green" well completion equipment designed to reduce emissions.

As of 2011, there were more than 77,310 producing oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania, according to state statistics quoted in the petition, most of them older, shallow wells.

But deep Marcellus Shale gas development has boomed in the past several years, and according to the 2012 Pennsylvania natural gas drilling emissions inventory released by the Department of Environmental Protection last month, there were 8,800 shale gas wells and 400 compressor stations in the state.

The operators reported emissions totaling 16,361 tons of nitrogen oxides; 101 tons of sulfur dioxide; 7,350 tons of carbon monoxide; 548 tons of fine airborne particulate matter; 600 tons of coarser particulate matter; and 4,024 tons of volatile organic compounds.

The DEP report also states that since 2008, sulfur dioxide emissions from electric power plants have been reduced by about 73 percent, and nitrogen oxides and particulate matter have also been reduced by approximately 23 percent and 46 percent.

"It may be true that burning gas for electricity is cleaner than coal, but the process of producing that gas is still creating a lot of toxic pollution," said Tim Ballo, an attorney with Earthjustice.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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