Pittsburgh is one of three cities nationwide where Environmental Protection Agency officials will hear testimony about the effects of the natural gas industry on air quality. Dozens of speakers have filled up the agenda for the all-day hearing on Tuesday, representing both the environmental movement and the gas industry.
On the table is a new round of regulations which would impose tighter standards for pollutants that emerge from natural gas wells, especially when they are first drilled. The EPA's proposed regulations would require drillers to capture the impure "flowback" gas that is allowed to be released during the first days of a new well. "Reducing these emissions will help cut toxic pollution that can increase cancer risks and smog that can cause asthma attacks and premature death—all while giving these operators additional product to bring to market," wrote Gina McCarthy, an assistant administrator for the EPA's Office Air and Radiation.
But despite EPA's claim of increased production, Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale natural gas industry isn't keen on the proposed rules. "While we understand that EPA is required by law to periodically evaluate current standards, this sweeping set of potentially unworkable regulations represents an overreach that could, ironically, undercut the production of American natural gas, an abundant energy resource that is critical to strengthening our nation's air quality," wrote Kathryn Klaber, President of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
Jamin Bogi of the Group Against Smog and Pollution said he thinks the industry opposes the rules because they translate into a large up-front investment in new equipment. "There was a big land rush, so a lot of companies are up to their neck in debt," said Bogi. "Some have even publicly offered themselves: 'Hey, someone please buy us.' … So, it might be that it makes them money in the long run, but they need that money now."
Bogi said the regulations would significantly reduce carcinogens like benzene, while cutting down on the nation's greenhouse gases by as much as 1%. However, Bogi said he thinks most people still consider shale gas air pollution secondary to the possibility of water contamination.
In addition to Tuesday's hearing in Pittsburgh, the EPA is holding listening events in Arlington, Texas and Denver, Colorado—cities also in the midst of shale gas drilling surges.
The EPA must take final action on the proposed air quality standards by February 28, 2012.