EPA criticizes state for shale air pollution rules
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has strongly criticized Pennsylvania's new policy guidelines for regulating air pollutants emitted by Marcellus Shale gas wells and development sites located in close proximity to one another.
According to the EPA, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's Oct. 12 draft policy differs from established federal law and the state's own air pollution control plan by imposing new limitations on the aggregation of air emissions from multiple shale gas industry sources such as gas wells, compressor pumping stations and pipelines.
That state policy, which amended a policy adopted by the Rendell administration in December 2010, uses the physical distance of one quarter mile between the shale gas facilities as a major qualifying criteria for determining if they should be considered as individual minor sources or a single, major source of air pollutants.
A broader geographic policy of aggregation consistent with the federal Clean Air Act would result in multiple gas development activities being treated as a single major source, and as such it would require them to meet stricter emissions standards to prevent deterioration of existing air quality.
"The [DEP] draft guidance appears to alter the conventional way in which aggregation determinations have been made federally and by PADEP," said Diana Esher, EPA Region III air protection division director, in an agency comment letter dated Nov. 21. "For example the guidance imposes new terms and requirements when considering the 'contiguous or adjacent' nature of two or more sources and provides a bright line test of distance between sources when making aggregation determinations."
She said in her letter and in comments attached to the letter that the EPA will review and comment on the DEP's air pollution source aggregation determinations.
The DEP did not respond Monday afternoon to several requests for comment about the EPA's criticism or the agency's plans to review DEP decision making. When the new policy, which de-emphasizes the inter-relatedness of oil and gas facilities, was announced, DEP Secretary Michael Krancer characterized it as a "practical, common-sense and legally required approach to air aggregation issues."
The DEP's air staff began implementing the new policy on an interim basis on Oct. 12, and they took public comments until Nov. 21.
Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the industry supports the state policy's "prescriptive definition of proximity" because it "gives predictability for development" while still allowing regulators to consider other factors depending on the specific site.
"That gives predictability for development," she said. "It's a good compromise."
The Clean Air Council, one of several environmental organizations that criticized the DEP policy when it was issued, applauded the EPA review and called on the federal agency to "ensure that the [state] guidance is repealed and public health and the environment is protected in Pennsylvania."
Jan Jarrett, president and chief executive officer for Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, a statewide environmental organization active on Marcellus Shale issues, said the DEP "thumbed its nose at the EPA" by rejecting established federal aggregation policy guidelines.
"What we need in Pennsylvania, and deserve in Pennsylvania, are world-class standards for controlling drilling pollution," Ms. Jarrett said. "The EPA's standards are better. And you would think, given the state's long history of bad air and the cost of bringing it into compliance, that the DEP would be eager on economic grounds to restrict emissions."
Thomas Au, conservation chair of the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter, said the EPA should closely monitor the DEP's permitting of Marcellus Shale development to ensure it is consistent with federal policies.
"If many gas industry sources of air pollution escape strict air pollution controls," Mr. Au said, "the regional air quality would degrade. Eventually, whole counties would not attain the national ambient air quality standards."
First Published December 6, 2011 12:00 am