Lawsuit filed in effort to close loophole on fracking emissions

Chemical plants, coal mines, power plants, steel mills, oil refineries and even the maple syrup industry must disclose their releases of hazardous pollutants on the federal Toxic Release Inventory.

But the natural gas drilling industry isn’t required to do the same, even though it now releases more toxics into the air than any other industry except for electricity-generating power plants, according to a coalition of environmental and open-government organizations.

Those nine organizations filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday seeking to compel the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require drilling companies, hydraulic fracturing contractors, and natural gas compressor stations and processing facilities to report their emissions as other industries do.

“Due to EPA’s long inaction, the oil and gas extraction industry remains exempt from the Toxics Release Inventory, one of our nation’s most basic toxic reporting mechanisms,” said Adam Kron, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, the Environmental Integrity Project. “The Toxic Release Inventory requires just one thing: annual reporting to the public. This reporting is critical to health, community planning and informed decision making. Whether to add the oil and gas extraction industry shouldn’t even be a question at this point.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., is the next step in a process that started 2½ years ago, when the groups petitioned the EPA to require the drilling industry to disclose its emissions on the publicly accessible inventory.

An EPA spokeswoman, Jennifer Colaizzi, said Wednesday the EPA hadn’t been served with the complaint yet or reviewed it, and declined to comment.

Mr. Kron, the lead attorney for the environmental groups, said the EPA has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit. He said the EPA never responded to the petition but has met with the environmental groups and the industry about the issue.

Drilling industry trade groups, including the Marcellus Shale Coalition and the American Petroleum Institute, wrote letters opposing that petition, saying most individual drilling and production facilities don’t meet minimum chemical reporting thresholds. They also said the petition sought to improperly aggregate multiple oil and gas drilling facilities to meet those thresholds.

A letter in April from the petroleum institute said that imposing emissions reporting requirements on the oil and gas industry “would not support the purpose of the TRI program, would present limited potential benefits, and would impose burdens on the regulated community and EPA.”

The institute estimated the cost of complying with TRI reporting at $200 million for the first year and $100 million annually thereafter.

A letter in December 2012 from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Robinson-based trade organization, also notes that the EPA decided in 1997 not to require TRI reporting by the oil and gas industry.

Congress passed legislation establishing the Toxics Release Inventory in 1986 — two years after the release of deadly gases killed thousands of people near a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India.

Environmental groups viewed the inventory as a crucial tool for protecting public health and the environment, as well as spurring innovations to reduce emissions. It required manufacturing facilities using or processing more than 10,000 pounds of any toxic or carcinogenic chemical a year to annually report the information about those releases into the air, water or soil. The number of chemicals now subject to TRI reporting was expanded over the years to more than 650.

The EPA administrator can require additional industries to report their toxic releases, and has. In 1997, the EPA added TRI reporting requirements to the electric power, hazardous waste treatment, bulk petroleum terminals, and metal and coal mining industries, but not oil and gas production, saying those facilities were unlikely to meet the chemical emissions or 10-employee thresholds.

Mr. Kron said oil and gas development operations have expanded in size and scope during the past 15 years.

“The oil and gas drilling industry with its directional drilling and fracking and compressor stations, wastewater impoundments and processing plants is a different industry than it was in 1997,” he said. “It didn’t have the big multi-well pads and the adjacent processing components. Many of its facilities could easily meet chemical reporting thresholds now.”

The lawsuit cited a January 2014 study by the Environmental Integrity Project that found 400 large oil and gas extraction facilities in six states — Pennsylvania, Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming — emitted a combined 8.5 million tons of TRI-listed chemicals annually.

The TRI database information can be accessed here.

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983. First Published January 7, 2015 11:13 AM

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