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EPA to reduce gas drilling pollution

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is issuing the first-ever standards to control air pollution from gas wells that are drilled using a method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but not without making concessions to the oil and gas industry.

The regulation is expected to be officially announced later Wednesday.

President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address strongly backed natural gas drilling as a clean energy source, and recently announced an executive order calling for coordination of federal regulation to ease burdens on producers. But he has come under criticism by the industry and Republicans for policies they say discourage energy development.

Much of the pollution from fracked gas wells comes when the well transitions from drilling to actual production, a three- to 10-day process which is referred to as “completion.” An earlier version of the rule limiting air pollution from gas wells would have required companies to reduce pollution immediately after the rule was finalized.

Administration officials who briefed The Associated Press in advance of Wednesday’s announcement said drillers now would be given an additional two years to reduce pollution during that stage. The Environmental Protection Agency will require drillers to burn off gas in the meantime, an alternative that can release smog-forming nitrogen oxides, but will still reduce overall emissions.

Industry groups had pushed hard for the delay, saying the equipment to reduce pollution at the wellhead during completion was not readily available. About 20,000 wells a year are being fracked, a process where water, chemicals and sand are injected at high pressure underground to release trapped natural gas.

“We believe that industry was correct in that we needed to have a ramp-up period,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity since the announcement wasn’t yet official.

There were other changes made since the EPA proposed the rule last July under a court order that stemmed from a lawsuit brought by environmental groups.

Wells drilled in low-pressure areas, such as coalbed methane reserves, would be exempt because they release less pollution during completion. And companies that choose to re-fracture wells using the pollution-reducing equipment at completion prior to the January 2015 deadline would not be covered by other parts of the regulation.

Since companies could capture the natural gas and sell it, the EPA estimates that they would save about $11-$19 million a year starting in 2015.

Hydraulic fracturing is largely responsible for a natural gas drilling boom, but the technique has raised environmental concerns for its toll or air and water.

Last March, pollution from natural gas drilling in the Upper Green River Basin in western Wyoming triggered levels of ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, worse than those recorded in Los Angeles, one of the smoggiest cities in the U.S.

In Dish, Texas, a rural town northwest of Dallas, the state’s environmental regulators detected levels of cancer-causing benzene, sometimes at levels dangerous to human health, likely coming from industry’s 60 drilling wells, gas production pads and rigs, a treating facility and compressor station.

At the same time, a state study in Pennsylvania of air quality near Marcellus Shale drilling sites in four counties found no emissions at levels that would threaten the health of nearby residents or workers.