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Suit seeks EPA decision on oil field chemical disclosure

January 7, 2015

Houston Chronicle
Matthew Tresaugue

Environmentalists filed a lawsuit Wednesday to force federal regulators to decide whether they should require companies to disclose the toxic chemicals released during oil exploration and production. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, marks the latest attempt by environmentalists to make information public on pollution from oil and gas drilling amid a rush to sink more wells into Texas, North Dakota and other parts of the country.

Federal rules require chemical makers, power producers and oil refiners, among others, to disclose pollutants they release into the air, water and soil to an inventory run by the Environmental Protection Agency. But companies that extract oil and gas are generally exempt from the reporting rules.

Environmental groups petitioned the EPA in 2012 to add oil and gas activities to the decades-old federal inventory, but the agency has yet to act. The lawsuit, citing an unreasonable delay by regulators, asks the court to force the agency to make a decision, either accepting or rejecting the petition.

“This is the last major sector that has not been included in the inventory,” said the lead attorney in the suit, Adam Korn of the Environmental Integrity Project. “We’re just saying to the EPA, look again. The industry is different now.”

The EPA declined comment on the lawsuit.

The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s main trade group, has told the agency that the reporting requirement would create an excessive administrative burden while providing negligible benefit. The rule would cover a small number of facilities, which are mostly found in rural and remote areas, that emit enough pollutants to cross the reporting threshold of 10,000 pounds for any one chemical, the group said.

The federal inventory began in 1986 after a gas leak at a Union Carbide plant killed thousands in Bhopal, India. The law requires a wide variety of industries to report their releases of toxic chemicals each year, but the requirement doesn’t cover oil and gas development. The EPA considered adding that sector in the 1990s but didn’t.

The environmental groups say the industry should be in the database because of the oil and gas production boom related to advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a well completion process that involves pumping large amounts of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to release oil and natural gas locked in shale rock.

The Environmental Integrity Project last year said it found that nearly 400 compressor stations, processing facilities and other oil and gas sites had released enough chemicals into the air to exceed the reporting threshold for the federal inventory. The group’s analysis covered six states, including Texas.
Korn said the group provided the information to the EPA, but it didn’t act, prompting the lawsuit. Such delays have led to other suits, typically filed by environmental groups seeking to drive policy. The disputes often end with a legally binding agreement on a timetable.

Zac Trahan, statewide program director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, one of the nine plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the public has a right to know about the pollution from oil and gas extraction, just like other industries.

“If oil and gas drilling and extraction is as safe as industry lobbyists say it is,” he said, “they should be able to follow the same rules every other industry already does.”

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