Environmentalists and advocates for drilling companies faced off Thursday at a public hearing in Arlington on the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rules aimed at limiting pollution at oil and gas wells.
The agency is proposing standards to curb hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," by requiring operators to capture and sell natural gas that now escapes into the air. Thursday's EPA hearing was held in a region with a vast area of urban drilling atop the natural gas-rich Barnett Shale. The EPA's proposal would apply new pollution control standards to about 25,000 gas wells that are hydraulically fractured each year.
While industry representatives touted the jobs and prosperity that drilling brings, critics argued it's not worth the environmental risk of toxic spills, scattered drill site explosions, tainted drinking water and polluted air.
Industry representatives said the proposed rules are extremely complicated and compliance would present a financial hardship, especially to smaller operations.
Teddy Carter, a spokesman for the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, said the state has about 5,000 oil and gas well operators, many of whom are small independents with limited capital resources.
"We believe that one size does not fit all" with regard to the reduced-emission completion regulations so they should be "encouraged but not mandated," he said. "Regulation for regulation's sake is a dangerous path that can potentially cause greater harm than good; TIPRO urges the EPA to not present solutions to problems that do not currently exist."
Carter was among several in the industry urging the EPA to extend its comment period by 90 days and its final action date by at least six months to give companies more time to review and plan. The current EPA timeline would see the rules take effect in the spring of 2012.
The hydraulic fracturing technique -- used with horizontal drilling -- allows rich stores of gas to be extracted from once out-of-reach, dense shale formations more than a mile underground. Intense drilling activity is under way in the Barnett Shale of North Texas, the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania, and other producing shale regions around the country.
The industry insists the process is safe for people and the environment, but critics doubt that.
Democratic state Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth said that in the past five years, air pollution in North Texas has steadily increased -- something he said is related to the drilling in the Barnett Shale.
"I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired" when people talk about cost effectiveness and acceptable risks at the expense of the health of children in his district, Burnam said
He applauded the EPA proposals and said they would "do what the Texas Legislature and state agencies that oversee oil and gas production have failed to do: protect public health by placing reasonable limits on air pollution that will both reduce emissions and increase industry revenues."
The EPA estimated its fully implemented proposal could reduce emissions of smog-forming volatile organic compounds by about 540,000 tons, or 25 percent. It would reduce emissions of the greenhouse gas methane by about 26 percent and reduce hazardous air pollutants, including benzene, by almost 30 percent.
Though drilling companies would have to spend millions of dollars complying with the rules, the government estimated the industry could save almost $30 million overall in 2015 from selling the captured natural gas.
However, Darren Smith, the environment, health & safety manager for Devon Energy questioned the EPA's suggestion that producers can profit by implementing the proposed rules. Smith said his company's conservative estimate is that it would cost a company $25,000 each time it does the proposed green completion requirement for reducing emissions. Smith said producers already use reduced-emissions completion technology when it makes sense.
He said the EPA is using that "erroneous data" to justify costly regulations on the industry.
"We urge the EPA to recognize that additional costs translate into fewer wells drilled and fewer people earning a paycheck as well as higher energy costs," he said.
Others, including environmental groups, argued the proposal could go further and that the EPA should not delay implementing the rules.
"There is real urgency for EPA to take this action," said Ramón Alvarez, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense Fund.
Arlington mother Dixie Fields gave teary-eyed testimony about her 7-year-old daughter's leukemia and the cancer-causing toxins she said research shows are tied to natural gas drilling. She asked that the EPA "be allowed to do their job and have the rules passed for much cleaner and much better regulations to hold the oil and gas companies accountable for past and future wells."
Alisa Rich with Wolfe Eagle Environmental agreed.
"Texas is burning, and it's time for the people to become burning mad about the contamination that the states turn a blind eye to, allowing our children to become sick and die and our precious resources become contaminated," Rich said.
The rules discussed at the Arlington hearing were first announced July 28 after a lawsuit was filed by two environmental organizations. Similar hearings were held Tuesday in Pittsburgh and Wednesday in Denver.