Former EPA regulatory director Eric Schaeffer remembers sitting in on an industry meeting in which an executive reacted to finding his business was on the list of the country's top benzene polluters. The company boss told other executives he didn't want to be on the same list next year. When you run a business, "you don't like to report things like benzene and formaldehyde," chemicals that are known to cause cancer in humans. "It draws attention to the pollution," says Schaeffer, who resigned from the EPA in protest in 2002 and now leads the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project.
Schaeffer's group is celebrating what they say is a rare victory for environmentalists against the fracking industry, which still enjoys loose regulations in Texas and other states. The win is also a victory against the EPA, which has been timid in the face of Big Oil and pro-fracking state regulators. Earlier this month, Schaeffer's Environmental Integrity Project joined 16 other environmental groups in a petition asking the EPA to better account for hazardous chemicals that the gas industry emits during and after fracking.
Currently, the EPA keeps a public list of known toxic chemicals that industries like steel, coal and chemicals emit, under a public database called the toxic release inventory. The inventory can help environmentalists or regulators catch inconsistent reporting and, Schaeffer believes, put pressure on companies to limit their toxic pollutants by shining a harsh spotlight. Yet the oil and gas industry has avoided much of that scrutiny. "The toxic release inventory has never required the oil and gas industry to report their pollution," says EIP spokesman Tom Pelton.
Last week, the EPA finally responded to the environmental groups' request with a letter promising that it will now require some natural gas operations to disclose their chemical releases. While individual fracked wells will not be part of the toxic release inventory, the larger natural gas processing plants, where gas is sent afterward, should now be included, the EPA ruled. "EPA has determined that natural gas processing facilities may be appropriate for addition to the scope of TRI [toxic release inventory]," wrote EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to the environmentalists.
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There are 551 natural gas processing plants in the country, by the environmental groups' calculations, nearly 200 of them in Texas. They are operated by pipeline companies such as Enbridge and major oil companies such as Exxon and Occidental.
"Gas processors are the most immediately obvious facilities" to account for toxic chemical releases, Schaeffer says, because of their size and likely the scope of their pollution. Though individual well operators have long been accused of using toxic chemicals, "It's not the classic facility with fences around it," making an inclusion in the toxic releases inventory more difficult.
The oil and gas industry, which typically denies causing harmful pollution at its wells, processing plants or anywhere else, is sounding appropriately terrified at the notion of disclosing harmful pollution. "The information sometimes emboldens local activists and drives calls for stepped-up regulation of some sectors," explains FuelFix, the Houston Chronicle's energy-industry-insider newsletter. "That is a major issue for U.S. oil and gas producers, which have combated public skepticism about the hydraulic fracturing process that has unlocked oil and gas development coast to coast."
The EPA still needs to roll out a formal proposal to explain how it will use its authority to get processing plants to comply. If history is any lesson, we can expect a lot of bitching from industry leaders and, eventually, a new lawsuit filed against the EPA by the Texas attorney general.