The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will propose regulations requiring natural gas processing plants to start reporting emissions of toxic chemicals they release in response to an environmental justice lawsuit brought by the Environmental Integrity Project and nine partner organizations which sued the agency in January 2015 following its October 2012 petition.

The EPA estimates that more than half of the 517 (2012 U.S. Energy Information Administration survey) existing natural gas processing plants in the US would meet the reporting thresholds for reporting emissions of know carcinogens including benzene, formaldehyde, hexane, hydrogen sulfide and xylenes to the federal Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). In all, natural gas processing plants in the U.S. manufacture, process, or otherwise use more than 25 different TRI-listed chemicals. While this action will add significant reporting requirements to natural gas processing plants, EPA decided to not include well sites, compressor stations, pipelines, and other support facilities that employ less than 10 people. However, if past regulatory actions against the coal extraction and electric generation industry are any indication, EPA oversight of the natural gas industry will increase in the coming decade.

This is a significant measure as it marks the first time in over 20 years in which the EPA has agreed to start rulemaking to expand the standard industrial classification (SIC) groups subject to EPCRA §313. This decision to expand the database to newly regulated facilities must still go through the EPA’s rulemaking and public review process before it is finalized. The formal response by the EPA and signed by its Administrator Gina McCarthy can be found here:      http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-10/documents/signed_eip_tri_petition_response_10.22.15.pdf

While natural gas has been championed by the EPA and the energy sector as the primary hydrocarbon fuel for powering the future, it is clear that environmental justice organizations will pursue additional regulation of the industry through the same mechanisms used against coal fired electric generating units and its mining operations. Only time will tell how increased regulatory oversight of exploration, well development and completion, production, and site abandonment in the natural gas industry will affect the market competiveness of the widely utilized fuel.

Stewart McCollam, P.E. is an Environmental Engineer with the Smith Management Group. Stewart can be reached at stewartm@smithmanage.com.