EPA plans natural gas plant toxic release rule

James Fenton
ConocoPhillps' San Juan Gas Plant is pictured on Monday in Bloomfield.

FARMINGTON — If a proposed EPA rule is ultimately approved, 27 natural gas processing plants in the state — and hundreds more around the U.S. — will have to alert the federal government of any toxic chemicals they release.

Answering a petition and subsequent lawsuit filed by the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project and 16 other environmental and open government groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month proposed adding natural gas processing facilities to the list of entities that report each year to the agency's Toxic Release Inventory, or TRI.

Created by Congress in 1986 as a way to provide the public information about the presence of toxic chemicals at facilities near residences, the TRI currently does not include facilities that process natural gas like ConocoPhillips' San Juan Gas Plant in Bloomfield and the Enterprise Field Services LLP's Chaco Gas Plant in the Chaco area.

A sign for ConocoPhillps' San Juan Gas Plant is pictured on Monday in Bloomfield.

Jim Lowry, ConocoPhillips' spokesman, declined to comment on the EPA's proposed rule in an email on Monday. Rick Rainey, Enterprise spokesman, said the person at Enterprise qualified to speak on the federal agency's proposed rule was travelling and could not be reached for comment by deadline on Monday.

In an Oct. 22 letter to the environmental groups that filed the 2012 petition, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said that of the more than 500 natural gas processing facilities in the U.S., the agency estimated that "over half of these facilities would annually meet TRI reporting thresholds and, if covered by the reporting requirements of TRI, be required to submit TRI information to EPA."

The EPA agreed to respond to the petition by Oct. 30 after the environmental groups sued in January.

McCarthy added that "the information likely to be obtained from these facilities is not readily available elsewhere." That information involved toxic substances like hydrogen sulfide, benzene, toluene and xylene, among others.

Adam Kron, an EPA attorney, said in a statement that adding the facilities to the TRI list would lead to operators reducing their emissions.

“The oil and gas industry releases an enormous amount of toxic pollutants every year, second only to power plants in emissions,” Kron said.  “With this decision, EPA is taking an important step in the right direction. Public reporting to the Toxics Release Inventory allows communities to measure environmental impacts and plan for their future. It also  motivates companies to reduce their toxic footprint, and provides insight into how well our environmental laws are working.”

The EPA's National Emissions Inventory, or NEI, which every three years lists air emissions from natural gas processing plants, is insufficient to effectively organize more exhaustive information on pollution to the public, McCarthy's response added. Unlike the NEI, which is limited to air-based emissions, the TRI is published each year and requires the disclosure of releases of chemicals to the land, air and water, and according to McCarthy's response.

But McCarthy would not include all sectors of the oil and gas industry in the proposed rule change, citing ongoing and recent rule-making, research and other activities related to characterizing the industry's footprint. She also said that "well-level activities" produced insufficient levels of the chemicals to merit inclusion on the list. according to the EPA.

Dan Olson, executive director of  the Durango, Colo.-based San Juan Citizens Alliance, in a statement criticized the decision not to include more of the industry in the proposed rule-making process.

“It is astonishing that oil and gas facilities have not had to join other pollution-intensive industries in publicly reporting emissions through the (TRI)," Olson said. "This rule is essential in providing the public and regulators the information they need to protect the health of their families and communities.”

In an email on Monday, Robert Daguillard, EPA spokesman, said that the EPA "intends to act swiftly in initiating rule-making to add natural gas processing facilities, but we are unable to provide specific date estimates at this time."

The EPA estimates that natural gas facilities "manufacture, process or otherwise use" 25 different TRI-listed chemicals.

Daguillard added that "approximately 42 million people, 48 percent of whom are minorities and 14 percent of whom live below the poverty line, reside within 49 kilometers (approximately 30 miles) of at least one natural gas processing plant."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.