Many have advocated the transition from a coal-based to a natural gas-based energy infrastructure as a crucial advancement in avoiding the catastrophic effects of climate change. This rapid transfer from one fossil fuel source to another, spurred by the explosion of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," fails to account for the life-cycle and vast externalities of a natural gas energy system.
When most people think of fracking, they think about wells and tainted water. However, natural gas infrastructure is a complicated and often vast network containing pipelines that move natural gas from wells to compressor stations that pressurize the gas and processing plants that separate the gas from water and other components. Greenhouse gases and other air pollutants are emitted during every step, including extraction, transport and processing. This article focuses on examining the attempts of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases produced during the process of hydraulic fracturing.
Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas operations result from vented emissions, fugitive emissions and combustion emissions that are released during the extraction process. Natural gas is primarily composed of methane. Therefore, methane is released throughout natural gas systems during normal venting as well as through fugitive or unintentional emissions. Fugitive emissions are particularly difficult to quantify because they are invisible, odorless and inaudible. Methane emissions are problematic from a climate change perspective because their global warming potential is 72 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Finally, incomplete combustion of fuel within engines associated with natural gas facilities results in carbon dioxide and methane emissions.
Recent studies indicate that, on average, between 1 percent and 3.3 percent of the natural gas extracted by fracking is emitted into the air. One study found that if these rates rise above 2.6 percent, the climate impact of natural gas would be greater than coal. Another recent study found global warming will actually increase as we approach 2050 and the country is transitioning towards 50 percent natural gas power generation. Yet another study found that the transition to natural gas power generation would require 100 years or more to achieve a 25 percent reduction in global warming.
Despite the results of these studies, there has been little progress made to curb or regulate the emissions produced by the natural gas extraction process. However, the EPA has many regulatory tools which, if properly implemented, could lead to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from fracking and other natural gas operations. These tools include the Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule [PDF], the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule and New Source Performance Standards.
In May 2010, the EPA finalized the Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule. Previously, a source of air pollution was considered a "major source" if it generated 100 tons per year (TPY) or more of a criteria pollutant. Due to the prevalence of greenhouse gases, the EPA "tailored" this rule. Beginning in January 2011, only those sources already considered major sources, with subsequent modifications to their facility increasing the emission of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) by 75,000 TPY or more, would be required to adopt best available control technology (BACT) for greenhouse gases. Beginning in July 2011, a facility could trigger major source status just by virtue of its greenhouse gas emissions. Any facility that emits 100,000 TPY or more of CO2e is required to obtain a Title V permit. A new facility emitting 100,000 TPY of CO2e or more must adopt BACT for greenhouse gases. An existing facility, even if it was not considered a major source, which undertakes a modification that increases greenhouse gas emissions by 75,000 TPY of CO2e and collectively emits over 100,000 TPY of CO2e &3151; including the modification would also have to adopt BACT for greenhouse gases.
While most natural gas facilities in Pennsylvania, for example, have historically been considered minor sources of air pollution, the Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule has led to many qualifying for "major source status" due to their CO2e emissions. These early BACT determinations are critical in setting a strong precedent for tight greenhouse gas controls. The Natural Gas STAR Program, a voluntary EPA partnership which encourages natural gas companies to adopt technologies that improve efficiency and reduce methane emissions, provides a baseline for greenhouse gas BACT determinations. Initial greenhouse gas BACT determinations in Pennsylvania have called for proper operation and maintenance of natural gas-fired turbines for maximization of thermal efficiency, capture of dehydrator emissions and leak detection and repair programs.
In accordance with 40 CFR 98 subpart W, owners and operators of natural gas facilities emitting 25,000 tpy CO2e or more must report emissions to the EPA. Facilities began monitoring GHG emissions on January 1, 2011, and the first report was due September 28, 2012. Beginning in 2013, reports must be submitted to the EPA by March 31 each year.
In an effort to combat the recent controversy regarding the climate impacts of natural gas operations, the industry is pushing the EPA to include the data submitted in September 2012 in the annual greenhouse gas inventory report to the UN. While the EPA wants to have the most up-to-date information, the data must undergo review and quality assurance before its release.
In response to a lawsuit over missing several deadlines, the EPA issued oil and gas air pollution standards [PDF] on April 17, 2012. The standards, however, failed to set standards for methane. Environmental groups and a coalition of eastern states submitted notices of intent to sue the EPA for its failure to set new source performance standards for new sources of methane under § 111 of the Clean Air Act (CAA). Section 111(b)(1)(B) requires the EPA to establish standards of performance governing the emission of air pollutants from new sources in the oil and gas sector, and if appropriate, revise those standards at least every eight years. The EPA has a mandatory duty to: (1) make a determination whether standards covering methane emissions are "appropriate" and (2) if so, to promulgate standards.
In the most recently released oil and gas air pollution standards the EPA stated that it "intends to continue to evaluate the appropriateness of regulating methane with an eye toward taking additional steps if appropriate." Making the appropriateness determination is not discretionary, and it is expected that the environmental groups and states will file a suit to force a determination shortly.
While natural gas has been billed as a bridge to a renewable energy future, it may just be a delay with minimal, if any, climate benefits. Although US President Barack Obama re-committed himself to climate legislation during his second inaugural address, it is crucial that the EPA use all of the tools at its disposal to ensure that natural gas operations do not continue the climate change legacy of coal.
Joseph Minott is the executive director of the Clean Air Council. As an environmental attorney, Minott has litigated cases under the Clean Air Act. He is a recognized expert on urban air pollution issues, air pollution impacts on low income neighborhoods, and alternative energy issues. Minott leads the Council's work on such urban air pollution as diesel pollution, pollution from ports and goods movement and has served on numerous federal, state and local regulatory and policy making boards.
Jay Duffy is a staff attorney at the Clean Air Council. He works primarily on the air issues associated with Marcellus Shale as well as coal-fired power plant litigation. Duffy graduated from Villanova Law in 2010 where he was a member of the Delaware Valley Inn of Court, the Villanova Environmental Law Journal and held internships at EPA Region 3 and PennFuture.
Suggested citation: Joseph Minott and Jay Duffy, A Bridge to Nowhere: Creating Natural Gas-Based Infrastructure, JURIST - Hotline, Feb. 20, 2013, http://jurist.org/hotline/2013/02/natural-gas-bridge-fuel-to-nowhere.php
This article was prepared for publication by John Paul Regan, an assistant editor with JURIST's professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at email@example.com