Environmentalist advocacy group sues EPA over fracking disclosure

Gas flare / air pollution
Source: DollarPhotoClub

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed it’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program be expanded to include a clause forcing energy companies to report all greenhouse gas emissions associated with oil and gas extraction.

The move comes at a time when a coalition of environmental advocacy groups sued the EPA to gain public access to information on toxic chemicals released by the energy industry through unconventional oil and gas exploration.

The current version of the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program only requires companies to report emissions associated with flaring. If the amendment is accepted, companies will have to reveal emissions data along with oil well identification information. However, the programme will continue relying on companies reporting their own emissions.

Disclosure to the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program is not mandatory which leads to many companies downplaying the amount of greenhouse gasses released to the atmosphere during exploration work.

Methane emissions are of a particular concern as methane, in its free state, is a particularly potent greenhouse gas. In fact, over the period of 100 years, methane is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its global warming proclivity.

The fact that the EPA still relies on companies self-reporting their emissions, with no independent verification systems, may lead to it consistently underestimating the extent of methane emissions accompanying shale exploration. Independent studies which carried out‘top-down’ studies of methane emissions by measuring methane gas levels in the air above wells, shows levels of methane much higher than that reported by energy companies. It also shows emissions during stages not customarily associated with methane leaks, such as during the drilling process.

This is very worrying especially that even in its current form the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, which has been operating for about four years and requires about 8,000 large industrial greenhouse gas emitters to report their own emissions, shows that the pollution resulting from hydrocarbon exploration accounts for about 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

To get a clearer picture of the amount of greenhouse emissions generated by the oil and gas industry, in 2013 The Environmental Defence Fund and a group of other organizations petitioned the EPA to make the reporting requirements more comprehensive.

“The original reporting rule did not include gathering and boosting systems at all,” Environmental Defence Fund senior attorney Tomas Carbonell said. “This is a major part of the inventory. Gathering and boosting was likely about 10 percent of all onshore oil and gas emissions.”

The suit brought against the EPA by nine environmental and open-government groups calls for oil and gas companies to join coal mines, electric utilities and other industries in reporting deadly chemicals used or released to the Toxic Release Inventory database.

Unlike the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, disclosure to the Toxic Release Inventory is mandatory but it doesn’t – at present – cover the oil and gas industry. The environmental advocacy groups suing the EPA want the oil and gas companies to be included as this would force the companies, who now hide behind the ‘trade secret’ argument, to disclose all chemicals released in to the environment.

“Because federal and state disclosure requirements are full of gaps and exemptions and otherwise have not kept pace with industry expansion, public information about the oil and gas extraction industry’s use and release of these toxic chemicals remains scant,” Adam Kron, a lawyer for the Environmental Integrity Project, wrote in the complaint.

The suit was criticised by a petroleum industry advocate as an attempt to force oil and gas producers into an unnecessary reporting requirement.

“What the EIP fails to grasp, and has actually refused to acknowledge for several years, is that the TRI was never intended to cover oil and gas production, which is already subject to numerous environmental regulations at the state and federal level,” said Steve Everley, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

The industry points to more than 400 individual measures to prevent or control fracking that have been passed by U.S. cities and counties, as well as to FracFocus – an industry-supported public database. The problem with these, however, is that most of them are voluntary and allow companies to conceal substances that they believe are covered by trade secrecy.

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