The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed to revoke clean air protections that limit oil and gas pollution. As they continue to move forward with rollbacks that have damaging consequences for the health of all Americans, it raises the question, what exactly is the EPA protecting?

On March 1, EPA issued a reckless proposal to roll back guidelines that help to reduce dangerous emissions from existing oil and gas operations. These wells spew harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are a key component of ground-level ozone pollution, also known as smog. Ozone pollution can cause respiratory and cardiovascular harm, trigger asthma attacks and can even cause early death. A 2016 report by the Clean Air Task Force found that ozone pollution from the oil and gas industry could be associated with an additional 750,000 summertime childhood asthma attacks across the country every year. As we noted in our 2017 "State of the Air" report, many cities in areas with high oil and gas operations rank among the most ozone-polluted cities in the nation.

The EPA proposal rescinds pollution cleanup standards known as the Control Techniques Guidelines (CTGs). These guidelines provide state and local air pollution control agencies with a toolkit of cost-effective measures that they can use to reduce pollution from the oil and gas sector. States can use these convenient, proven approaches or implement other state-specific solutions to help reduce air pollution in areas that do not meet ozone health standards.

States count on EPA to provide these tools. Absent these resources to help them clean up smog pollution, many states would lack the authority they need to protect their residents' health. EPA estimates that withdrawal of the standards could lead to as much as 64,000 tons of additional VOC pollution per year. Increases in harmful pollution would threaten the health of many Americans around the country, particularly more vulnerable groups like children, older adults and those with lung disease.

The risk of continued or increased ozone smog is not the only threat to health from this flawed proposal. In addition to contributing heavily to smog, oil and gas wells directly leak cancer-causing VOCs, such as benzene and formaldehyde, and other toxic gases such as toluene, carbonyl sulfide and xylenes. One 2014 study found levels of benzene and formaldehyde near extraction sites that exceed recognized limits on exposure.1  The rollback would also result in up to 200,000 tons per year of methane pollution.  Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

This proposal to roll back these guidelines is just the latest attack on clean air protections from this Administration. The same day this proposal was issued, the Administration also amended an existing EPA methane rule, changing it to say that oil and gas well leaks do not need to be fixed during unplanned or emergency shut downs. This is just the latest example of EPA giving industry a license to pollute, at the cost of Americans' health.

What can you do to help protect clean air and lung health? Tell EPA: don't take away protections from oil and gas pollution! It only takes a couple of minutes.

  • Sources
    1. Macey G.P., R. Breech, M. Chernaik, C. Cox, et al. 2014. Air Concentrations of Volatile Compounds near Oil and Gas Production: A Community-Based Exploratory Study. Environmental Health 13:82.
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