Two weeks ago the EPA released new regulations on how much carbon coal-fired power plants can emit. These regulations are a major step forward in the United States’ attempts to regulate climate change. Indeed, some have suggested that Obama’s legacy is finally becoming that of the president who took meaningful action to combat climate change. In one area though, the new regulations represent no progress; they maintain the Federal government’s deliberate decision not to regulate the hydraulic fracturing boom.
Hydraulic fracturing is the fastest growing sector of American energy extraction and is solely responsible for projections that suggest America may be energy independent by 2035. It is also responsible for an unending stream of controversy and serious allegations of both air and water pollution. In particular, and where the new EPA regulations fall short, hydraulic fracturing may be responsible for the release of large amounts of methane during the drilling, completion and transportation phases of well construction.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with four times the warming potential of a comparable amount of CO2 and the release of even a small amount of methane could be enough to offset the carbon benefits of hydraulic fracturing. To be clear, hydraulic fracturing does stand to offer benefits from a climate change perspective. Burning natural gas in electric power plants emits significantly less CO2 per unit of electricity generated (as well as far fewer localized pollutions like mercury and PM2.5). As a result, if America transitioned all of our coal fired power plants to gas generation we’d see CO2 reductions from electrical power generate on par with, or even larger than, those that will result from the new EPA regulations.
However, realizing a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions depends critically on the fact that up-stream emissions (emissions during the production of natural gas) are not so large that they offset the reductions made in emissions at the power plants. This is why fugitive methane emissions are so important. While the empirical question of how much methane is emitted upstream is not settled, the new EPA regulations offered an opportunity for the EPA to step into the debate and mandate, at the very least, better measurement and reporting of these fugitive emissions.
Instead, the EPA took a pass. In line with nearly every federal action regarding hydraulic fracturing over the last ten years, the EPA has left the measurement of methane emission up to fracking companies, and to the states where fracking is occurring. While it is not yet clear that the EPA’s failure to act on methane will result in higher levels of methane emissions, it is clear that the patchwork of inconsistent state regulations covering other aspects of hydraulic fracturing have caused, and will continue to cause, higher than necessary levels of pollution and conflicts between gas producing states and their neighbors.
To see this, one need look no further than the enormous growth in hydraulic fracturing occurring in Pennsylvania and the effects it has had on neighboring Ohio and West Virginia. Because of a quirk in geography, Pennsylvania has some of the largest frackable gas reserves in the country but they have almost no injection wells (wells often used to dispose of waste water). Ohio has much less easily accessible gas than Pennsylvania but many more injection wells. As a result, fracking companies have for several years transported their waste water from gas wells in Pennsylvania to disposal wells in Ohio. This has resulted in significant increases in truck traffic on Ohio roads. Increased traffic also brings increased road wear costs, a higher number of accidents, and, most damaging, increased mortality for Ohio residents from air pollution caused by the diesel trucks. Unfortunately, because the regulation of the fracking is left to the states, Pennsylvania has done nothing to prevent this transport (and arguably has encouraged by asking, in 2011, that fracking companies not take waste to PA municipal treatment facilities) nor have they done anything to compensate Ohio residents. While fracking companies pay an impact fee for every well they drill, the money from this fee is distributed only within Pennsylvania.
The recent EPA regulations would have done nothing to stop the transport of waste from PA to OH, but the example is important. It demonstrates that leaving regulatory control over fracking to the states results in far reaching problems. Unfortunately, by not including regulations on methane in their recent regulation of power plant emissions the EPA passed up a golden opportunity to harmonize some of the disparate state regulations around fracking. While local control over regulation can sometimes result in benefit, the evidence from hydraulic fracking thus far is that his is not one of these times. Rather, the cross-border nature of much of the pollution impacts from fracking calls for more harmonized regulation of the kind only the EPA is in a position to make.
Image Credit: Patrick Kelle