With unconventional oil and natural gas drilling spreading across much of the country, U.S. EPA said yesterday it plans to regulate the industry's air emissions tied to public health problems and that contribute to global warming.

This comes as environmental groups, regulators and the booming natural gas industry debate how to safely drill tens of thousands of shale gas wells in the coming decade. The growing U.S. onshore gas supply is seen as a cleaner fuel source for electric utilities that burn a lot of coal, but there is a push for environmental regulations to accompany the boom.

"Small-town America shouldn't have Los Angeles-quality air, but in areas where gas drilling is booming that's exactly the case," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). "Until we can close industry exemptions and loopholes within the law, this overdue update to our clean air laws is welcome and desperately needed."

The new standards aim at slashing smog-forming and cancer-causing pollutants emitted during the oil and gas drilling process. Putting the federal regulations in place would mean a 95 percent reduction in smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during the completion of shale gas wells.

The standards would also drive down emissions of methane, the main component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas accumulating in the atmosphere.

Ramon Alvarez, senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, said he does not expect EPA to regulate methane directly but that there are "collateral benefits" to cutting toxic pollutants.

Officials said an EPA analysis found the standards "rely on cost-effective existing technologies to reduce emissions." Alvarez agreed. He said "closed loop" technologies and other methods of capturing and shipping emissions have been deployed by a number of companies, including some that have made money by selling methane that would otherwise be vented.

Industry waiting for details
EPA has taken heavy fire from Republicans in Congress and electric utilities that depend on coal for the agency's effort to strengthen air quality standards. The GOP and special interests in the utility and industrial sectors have also slowed EPA's proposals to start regulating greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global climate change.

The oil and gas industry has been more muted on this proposal, suggesting to some that the technology to comply with the regulations is well-developed. Under a court order to do so, EPA must complete the regulations by January.

Top groups, including America's Natural Gas Alliance, the American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) have all said they need to see more details before commenting.

"The information that we have seen from the EPA is very vague," said IPAA spokeswoman Nicole Daigle in an email. "Many oil and natural gas producers already use green completion technologies; however, we do not know whether they are the same as those proposed by the EPA."

Alvarez said he expects some push back from industry. "This is an industry that's operated with a extremely low level of regulation over the years," he said. "There's a philosophical aversion to being regulated."

The nation's massive shale and tight gas reservoirs are spread across the Northeast; in the upper Midwest; under Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas; and north into the Rocky Mountain region.

The fight over air pollution caused by oil and gas producers started in January 2009, at the start of President Obama's term and as the gas shale boom kicked into high gear.

That month, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and Santa Fe, N.M.-based WildEarth Guardians filed suit against EPA claiming it had ignored a Clean Air Act requirement that at least every eight years the agency review and revise national emissions standards for hazardous air pollutants. That includes whether onshore natural gas production, transmission and storage facilities emit significant amounts of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, methane, carbon dioxide, and VOCs such as benzene.

15,000 wells near Dallas-Fort Worth
In Texas, where the Barnett Shale formation in and around Fort Worth had been the biggest producer of shale gas in the country, researchers and local activists had been looking at the cumulative impacts of the nearly 15,000 wells drilled.

That January, Al Armendariz, then a researcher at Southern Methodist University, authored a study of air emissions tied to gas production in the Barnett Shale. Obama eventually picked Armendariz to run EPA Region 6, based in Dallas, which includes Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.

The study projected that in the summer of 2009, emissions of nitrogen oxide and cancer-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from gas sources in the Barnett Shale would exceed emissions from cars and trucks in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

At the same time, the regulations to deal with methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and other air pollutants out of the gas fields suggest fugitive methane emissions are also getting into the atmosphere as a result of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the shale formations.

In the sprawling Marcellus Shale formation in the Northeast -- stretching underneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio -- environmental regulations have not kept up with the rapid expansion of natural gas drilling. Water use and disposal are the biggest issue there, but closing in on that is concern about emissions.

Air emissions out of the shale basins are now part of a broader debate about the "life cycle" environmental impact of the gas boom. A study by researchers at Cornell University concludes water and air pollution during the drilling process places natural gas on par with coal as a major emitter of greenhouse gases.

While there are groups that held up the study as evidence that gas is just as dirty as coal, a significant number of independent analysts were strongly critical of the conclusions.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500