New Rules To Curb Pollution From Oil, Gas Drilling
Oil and natural gas drillers use equipment like this to separate the liquid, gas and sand that come out of wells at the beginning of hydraulic fracturing operations.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules Wednesday to control the problem of air pollution coming from wells being drilled by the booming oil and natural gas drilling industry.
Currently, waste products from the drilling operations, which include a mix of chemicals, sand and water, can be pumped into open enclosures or pits, where toxic substances can make their way into the air. The new rules will require this fluid to be captured by 2015, and flared before that.
Some states, including Colorado, already require companies to do what the EPA will soon require everywhere.
Mark Balderston, who started working in the oil and gas industry 40 years ago, says that for most of his career, getting gas out of the ground has been an assault on his senses.
“It’s going to give you a real heavy, industrial, garage-kind of smell almost,” he says. “Real intense.”
Balderston, who is now a senior engineer overseeing well sites in Garfield County, Colo., is referring to the messiest parts of the operation, called well completion. It’s the centerpiece of the EPA’s new rules, and is the part of the process that pollutes the air the most. After a well is drilled, all the gas, mixed with water and other substances used to drill the well, comes gushing out.
In recent years, completions have become even messier because companies have started using an engineering technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which requires a lot more material to open up gas wells, and subsequently creates a lot more waste.
The general practice has been to send that waste into an open pit and let the gas coming up go directly into the air.
“A lot of that would be vented off — it’s just let go, it’s not contained anywhere,” Balderston says. “And that’s not good.” Balderston says that venting could go on for weeks. But Colorado has been doing something different: “Now, it’s all captured,” he says.
Balderston is referring to a technique the industry calls “green completions” — that means the stuff gushing out of the well is collected right away. Colorado started requiring this on some wells a few years ago, as did Wyoming. The EPA’s new rule will require them around the country.