EPA to mandate disclosures on chemical releases from gas processing plants

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency will force companies to disclose details on the toxic chemicals released from gas processing plants nationwide in response to legal challenges.

The agency committed to writing new regulations requiring gas processing plants to report the information to the government’s Toxics Release Inventory in a letter to environmental groups that have been pursuing the disclosure since 2012. But the EPA denied the environmentalists’ plea to impose the disclosure mandates more broadly on other parts of the oil and gas extraction sector, with the agency specifically rejecting potential chemical reporting about pipelines, compressor stations and wells themselves.

The EPA will launch a formal rule making process to impose the requirements, likely putting any final mandate at least two years away. But the decision ultimately could affect more than half of the United States’ 517 natural gas processing plants — generally those with at least 10 full-time employees or high chemical releases — which could be obligated to add information to the government chemical database. According to the EPA, those facilities manufacture, process or otherwise use more than 25 different chemicals that must be disclosed through the Toxics Release Inventory, including benzene, hydrogen sulfide and xylene.

“The addition of natural gas processing facilities to TRI would meaningfully increase the information available to the public,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in her letter.

Information about air emissions from natural gas processing facilities is already collected by the EPA and published every three years, but the Toxics Release Inventory data covering releases to the air, land and water is published annually. Created in 1986, the database is designed to provide the public with information about toxic chemicals in their communities and the EPA and some groups now offer a host of mapping and visualization tools to make sense of the information.

Adam Kron, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, which spearheaded a 2012 petition and a lawsuit earlier this year to compel EPA action on the issue, said the information will arm people valuable information about chemicals discharged in their communities.

“Public reporting to the Toxics Release Inventory allows communities to measure environmental impacts and plan for their future,” he said. “It also motivates companies to reduce their toxic footprint and provides insight into how well our environmental laws are working.”

The information sometimes emboldens local activists and drive calls for stepped-up regulation of some sectors.

That is a major issue for U.S. oil and gas producers, which have combatted public skepticism about the hydraulic fracturing process that has unlocked oil and gas development coast to coast. Safety concerns have mounted as the domestic drilling boom puts wells and energy infrastructure alongside residential communities — including in areas not accustomed to the activity.

The American Petroleum Institute said it was monitoring the issue but declined to provide more detailed comments before the EPA releases a formal proposal.

For now, the EPA is ruling out requiring toxic chemical reporting from wells, compressor stations and other upstream oil and gas infrastructure that the agency said were associated with “significant quantities” of toxic chemicals in the government database.

The EPA said it was sticking to its 1996 conclusion that individual wells are unlikely to produce enough of the chemicals to meet reporting thresholds.

“Many activities within the (oil and gas extraction) sector may manufacture, process, use and/or release significant quantities of TRI-listed chemicals,” McCarthy said, “yet the activities are often spread over a vast geographical area and require few employees to operate.”

Kron stressed that the EPA’s decision “is an important step toward strengthening the public right to know” but “EPA should add the entire oil and gas extraction sector to the Toxics Release Inventory.”

“By EPA’s estimates, the oil and gas industry releases a vast amount of toxic chemicals to the air every year, second only to power plants,” Kron said. “A community or individual shouldn’t have less information on the industrial facility next door just because it’s within the oil and gas industry.”

The environmental groups behind the TRI reporting push, including the Texas Campaign for the Environment, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthworks could challenge the EPA’s response. They also will have a chance to weigh in during the public comment process on any proposed TRI reporting rule.