Janet McIntyre and her husband had lived for 15 years amid the farmland outside Evans City, in Butler County. In late 2009, the area's first Marcellus Shale gas wellpad arrived; six more followed, all within six-tenths of a mile of her house.
One day this past January, the well closest to them, about 1,500 feet away, burned off methane in a flare. And McIntyre says nothing's been the same since. That same day came the stink: a salty, chemical odor she smells whenever the wind blows. "When it's bad, you can't spend more than five minutes outside," says McIntyre. "Your eyes water, it burns up in your sinuses." A metallic taste forms in the mouth, and "When you're sweating, [it] feels like your skin could crawl off your body. It stings."
So on Sept. 27, McIntyre was at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center to talk air pollution. She was among those who spoke at a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hearing on the agency's proposed air regulations for oil and gas drilling.
The rules include the first federal air standards for wells that are hydraulically fractured -- the standard technique for extracting natural gas from shale formations located a mile or more below the earth's surface, such as the Marcellus Shale underlying most of Pennsylvania.
While shale-gas drilling is ramping up here, it's been booming elsewhere for years, and causing similar air-quality problems. In March, a county in sparsely populated but heavily drilled Wyoming experienced worse smog than Los Angeles. Residents complained of shortness of breath, bloody noses and watery eyes. Meanwhile, in urbanized Fort Worth, Texas, one study concluded that gas and oil production contributed as much to smog formation as did all the metro area's cars and trucks combined.
The EPA's new rules would apply to emissions from pipelines and storage tanks on new and modified wells. Under the regulations, drillers would be required to use existing technology and best practices to limit emissions of smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by 95 percent.
Industrywide, the EPA says, the rules would reduce by 25 percent emissions of both VOCs and methane, the latter a potent greenhouse gas. And it would reduce cancer risks from air toxics including benzene.
Such reductions would be achieved mostly by a process known as "green completion," which requires companies to capture natural gas that now leaks or is vented into the air. EPA says this approach makes the new standards "highly cost-effective" for drillers, because selling the captured gas could net the industry nearly $30 million a year after equipment costs.
Of more than 100 speakers at the Sept. 27 hearing, the vast majority approved of the new standards; some even favored strengthening them further. Speakers in favor of the rules included environmental activists and citizens like McIntyre. Most speakers critical of the rules represented industry. Some called for an extended comment period and a one-year delay in implementation of the rules, which are now set to take effect in March 2012.
Howard J. Feldman, head of regulatory and scientific affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based American Petroleum Institute, testified that the industry supports green completions, but needs more time to acquire the equipment and install it at well sites that are remote or unmanned. Feldman said the rule as written could create a "virtual moratorium" on oil and gas development.
Some states have their own rules governing gas-well emissions. Colorado experienced a similar comment period several years ago, says Michael Freeman, a staff attorney for public-interest law firm Earth Justice. "When these rules were proposed, the [Colorado] oil and gas industry screamed bloody murder," says Freeman, speaking by phone from Denver. "It turned out, their claims were unfounded."
But Colorado Oil & Gas Association spokesman Doug Flanders says COGA too objects to the proposed federal rules. COGA considers them stricter than Colorado's and calls them "expensive controls for minimal emissions reduction." And Flanders says that not all wells are equally suitable for methane capture and resale.
The EPA is accepting comments on the proposed rules through Oct. 31 at www.regulations.gov; use Docket ID Number EPA-HQ-OAR-2010-0505.