EPA Says Frack Now, Regulate Later

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By Deborah Solomon

Does the Obama administration care about air quality? It isn't always easy to tell.

The Environmental Protection Agency said today that it will delay until 2015 the first federal rules aimed at curbing air pollution from hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

The move follows the highly-politicized decision last summer to abandon a rule aimed at curbing smog-forming ozone, which industry and Republicans successfully tagged as a "job-killing" environmental regulation from President Barack Obama.

Luckily, EPA isn't giving up on the fracking rule (which it is required to implement as part of a consent decree). But it apparently sees no problem in waiting another three years to effectively curb the greenhouse-gas emissions that escape during fracking. Natural gas is primarily methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is emitted during production and extraction. That's unfortunate because methane, when released directly into the atmosphere, is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The EPA rule will eventually be implemented and will smartly limit air pollution from hydraulic fracturing by requiring companies to install equipment that captures the emissions created when a well is fracked or re-fracked.

In the meantime, the EPA is requiring companies to reduce their emissions by flaring or burning off the gas that would otherwise escape. That's better than venting it into the atmosphere but doesn't reduce emissions nearly as much as capturing the gas would. It also gives the industry little incentive to install the new equipment quickly.

Yet it is hard to see what's so hard about capturing emissions. . Colorado and Wyoming already demand this of their operators and many companies already do it voluntarily.

Why? Because it's in their interest: This rule, unlike many of EPA's other regulations, is actually estimated to save the industry money since companies can sell the natural gas they capture.

Still, industry trade groups such as the American Petroleum Institute have been imploring the White House to provide relief, saying the EPA's original plan to implement the rule almost immediately was too quick. API has argued that it will take three to four years for equipment to become available on a wide-enough scale to accommodate all the industry activity.

The EPA appears to have bought that argument. Regina McCarthy, the agency's assistant administrator, told reporters the new timeline "will provide time for the industry to order and manufacture enough equipment." McCarthy says the change was based on EPA analysis of real data and "wasn't politically motivated."

(Deborah Solomon is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)

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-0- Apr/18/2012 22:04 GMT