Hundreds of gas plants across the country — and as many as 180 in Texas — soon will have to alert the federal government if they discharge, produce or handle certain toxic chemicals like benzene or hydrogen sulfide.
Responding to a petition and subsequent lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental and open government groups, including one from Texas, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided to add natural gas processing facilities to the list of entities that must report annually to the Toxic Release Inventory, or TRI. Congress created the program nearly 30 years ago as a way to provide citizens with information about the presence of toxic chemicals at facilities in their neighborhoods.
The EPA declined, however, to add the entire oil and gas sector to the list, as groups including the Texas Campaign for the Environment had demanded.
In a letter written late last week to the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy explained that the agency was partly granting the group’s petition — filed in 2012 in conjunction with 16 other organizations — and partly denying it.
“EPA agrees with petitioners that numerous processes within the oil and gas extraction sector are associated with significant quantities of TRI-listed chemicals," she wrote."However, several factors lead EPA to decline to add this sector, with the exception of natural gas processing plants, to the scope of TRI at this time.”
“EPA is currently engaging in a number of activities, including rule-making, research, guidance and other outreach, targeting the oil and gas extraction sector," McCarthy continued.
She went on to note that the agency previously has argued that the inventory's reporting requirements for facilities — including employing a minimum of 10 full-time equivalent employees and handling a minimum amount of chemicals — are not likely to be met at all individual well-drilling sites, so it doesn't make sense to require the entire industry to report.
The EPA agreed to respond to the petition by Oct. 30 after the coalition sued in January, claiming an unreasonable delay in response.
The coalition groups heralded the EPA’s decision as a victory on Tuesday, but said they still believe the agency should require the entire oil and gas sector to report to the inventory, which Congress created in 1986 with the passage of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.
That law requires certain facilities to report to the inventory every year if they meet three criteria: They must employee 10 or more full-time equivalent employees; manufacture, process or use a certain amount of nearly 600 toxic chemicals on the program list; and be part of an inventory-covered industry like mining or manufacturing.
“Getting gas processing plants to report to the Toxic Release Inventory is an important first step, but we have not yet made any decisions about dropping the lawsuit,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “We are still evaluating some of the other emission sources in the oil and gas industry to determine if they are large enough to also be required to report their toxic pollution.”
Still, the addition of natural gas processing plants will help hold the oil and gas industry accountable, said Aaron Mintzes, policy advocate for Earthworks, one of the groups in the coalition.
“While we prefer [that] EPA require reporting industry-wide, this step will provide the public a better understanding of the toxic contaminates in their communities,” Mintzes said.
The EPA intends to implement the new regulation as quickly as possible, but can’t yet say when it might take effect, according to information emailed by a spokesman.
“EPA believes the addition of natural gas processing facilities to TRI would meaningfully increase the information available to the public and further the purposes of” the 1986 law, the email said.
"EPA estimates that natural gas processing facilities manufacture, process, or otherwise use more than 25 different TRI-listed chemicals, including hydrogen sulfide, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. Additionally, EPA estimates 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."
The agency estimates that more than half of the 500-plus natural gas processing plants in the U.S. will be required to report. In Texas, there are 180 plants total, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. How many of them meet the reporting criteria remains unclear.
The Toxic Release Inventory differs from other programs like the National Emissions Inventory in that it requires the annual disclosure of discharges to land and water, in addition to air, along with “waste management and pollution prevention information.” (The National Emissions Inventory requires reporting every three years.) The Toxic Release Inventory database also is designed to be easily accessed by the public.
Nearly every natural gas plant in Texas — 175 of them — already are required to report air emissions each year to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and must obtain state permits that cap emissions “at levels protective of human health and the environment,” the state agency said in a statement.
“Emissions event reporting is required by all facilities that emit a reportable quantity of a pollutant,” the statement said. “These reporting requirements are applicable regardless [of] if the site in question is required to report to the EPA [Toxic Release Inventory.]"