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Industry chapped over EPA proposal

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON - Representatives of the oil and gas industry told the Environmental Protection Agency in a special hearing Thursday that new rules proposed to protect air quality were too much, too fast. PROPOSED EMISSIONS RULES

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new rules for oil and gas operators to reduce emissions. The new requirements are expected to cost $754 million annually to implement. However, the equipment and repair and maintenance schedules are expected to capture $783 million in gas and condensate that would otherwise be lost to the atmosphere. The EPA estimates the cost of a "green completion" to be recovered in 60 days, and the cost of the other requirements to be recovered within a year.Flares:• Use special equipment, sometimes called "green completion," to collect gas and reduce emissions during the first three to 10 days after hydraulically fracturing or re-fracturing a well - a period known as "flowback" - as a well is being prepared for production.Compressors:• New requirements for seals and maintenance schedulesPneumatic controllers• New emissions limits for these devices, which are often gas-drivenCondensate and storage tanks• New emission controls at certain production levelsProcessing plants• New leak detection and repair requirements; new limits for glycol dehydratorsSource: Environmental Protection Agency "Proposed Amendments to Air Regulations for the Oil and Natural Gas Industry" Fact Sheet

The theme echoed differently for residents, who said too many wells came into their communities too fast, and the new rules meant to protect human health and the environment couldn't come quickly enough.

About 230 people attended the all-day meeting in Arlington, the last of three public hearings the agency held nationwide on new rules it must issue by Feb. 28. Two environmental groups sued the agency in January 2009 for failing to review standards for the oil and gas industry, as it was required to do under the Clean Air Act. In February 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., under a consent decree, laid out the timeline.

Bill Stevens, of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, said operators had just gone through a long process with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and its new air permitting rules. He told the EPA that educating small companies is important.

"Many will be out of compliance without ever knowing it," Stevens said. "They have no staff involved in air permitting."

Both Stevens and Angie Burckhalter, of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, underscored that small operators, many of which have 20 employees or fewer, don't have someone on staff with the kind of expertise needed to meet the requirements. The reporting requirements would be burdensome, they said.

"These are truly small businesses struggling to stay in business," Burckhalter said, requesting an 18-month delay in implementing the rules.

Former state Rep. Kip Averitt, now with the Clean Energy Coalition, cautioned the EPA that the new rules "could inadvertently subsidize those [energy sources] that are not as clean."

"The public policy should be encouraging and nurturing of this industry," Averitt said.

Darren Smith, representing Devon Energy, the largest shale gas producer, questioned the data EPA used and claimed the agency overstated the economic benefit of the new rules.

The new rules are expected to cost $754 million annually in 2015, but recover $783 million in gas and condensate.

Devon would provide new data that showed a different cost-benefit, he said.

Laredo resident Tricia Cortez testified on behalf of the Rio Grande International Study Center, saying that producers are drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale at breakneck speed, going from 26 wells to 2,000 wells in just a short time.

"Pemex [Mexico's state-owned petroleum company] has drilled test wells beyond Eagle Pass, in Piedras Negras, to see how far the shale extends," Cortez said.

Residents have complained that operators are drawing from the Rio Grande, from city fire hydrants and from water dispensers meant for the colonias, but no one is monitoring the usage, which is reportedly between 7 million and 9 million gallons of water per well, she said.

Recently, they have become concerned about air quality, having witnessed operators hauling flowback water in open dump trucks, sometimes spilling it on city streets, and dumping it into unlined pits to evaporate.

"There are huge flares that burn 24 hours a day and some have been going for a month and a half," Cortez said, calling for greater enforcement and study in the area.

Residents in the Barnett Shale region testified to the effects of having operations close to home and the need for better controls.

Arlington resident Julia Burgen came to speak on behalf of the Sierra Club, saying that she has been frustrated by a 25-year battle to clean the region's air, only to see the gains lost with shale gas emissions.

But she also told the EPA that her asthma medicine costs $1,827 per year.

"And that doesn't include the cost of my doctor visits," she said. "No wonder the medical industry is a growth industry."

Argyle resident Susan Waskey said her home was within a mile of about 20 drilling sites and she now gets migraines with an alarming frequency.

"I used to get them once a month," Waskey said. "Recently, I get as many as five migraines a week."

In order to function, she said, she now sees a neurologist and has to take a special prescription that costs $54 per dose.

"Some days I need two pills," she said.

She estimated the cost to treat her migraines is about $13,000 per year, adding, "I know I'm not the only person suffering from health problems."

The consent decree includes a requirement that the EPA consider the risk to human health.

The agency's review found that current allowable emissions of toxic compounds increases the cancer risk from oil and gas production to as high as 400 in 1 million, an unacceptable level of risk.

Therefore, the EPA is proposing new rules to reduce benzene emissions from production equipment.

That comes as little comfort to Arlington resident Dixie Fields, whose daughter developed leukemia when she was 2 1/2 years old, and who recently tried to prevent the drilling of yet another gas well in their neighborhood.

She had two questions when her daughter was diagnosed: Would she die, and why did this happen?

Fields' daughter survived. But now she's learned at least one possible answer to her other question.

Benzene causes leukemia, she said.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is .