By Lesley Foxhall Pietras

On April 18, 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA or Agency) committed to improving air emissions data for the oil and natural gas production sector. EPA made this commitment in response to the Office of Inspector General’s February 20, 2013 report, “EPA Needs to Improve Air Emissions Data for the Oil and Natural Gas Production Sector” (pdf) (Report). The Office of the Inspector General is an independent office within EPA that promotes “economy, efficiency, effectiveness” and prevents and detects fraud and abuse.

In the Report, the Inspector General concluded that EPA’s directly measured air emissions data on criteria and air toxic pollutants for important oil and gas production processes and sources is very limited. This type of data is used to develop emissions factors, which EPA and states rely on to estimate air emissions. According to the Inspector General, “[l]imited data from direct measurements, poor quality emissions factors, and incomplete [National Emissions Inventory] data hamper EPA’s ability to assess air quality impacts from oil and gas production activities.” Report at p. 10. The Report indicates that the Inspector General is particularly concerned about emissions factors for the following oil and gas production processes and sources: internal combustion engines, process heaters, flares and enclosed combustors, dehydrators, tanks (condensate, storage, oil, etc.), amine treaters, evaporative ponds, produced water tanks, well completions, and pneumatic devices. Id. at 13-14.

Based on its findings, the Inspector General recommended that EPA develop and implement a comprehensive strategy for improving air emissions data for the oil and gas production sector; prioritize which oil and gas production emissions factors need to be improved; develop additional emissions factors as appropriate; and ensure that the National Emissions Inventory data for this industry sector is complete.

EPA responded to the Report in an April 18, 2013 memorandum from Gina McCarthy (Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation) and Lek G. Kadeli (Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development). Specifically, EPA promised to:

  • Develop a strategy for improving oil and gas sector emissions data, emissions factors, and measurement techniques by the first quarter of 2014, and begin implementing that strategy by the third quarter of 2014;
  • Finalize revised emissions factors development procedures for data collected from traditional test methods by the fourth quarter of 2014 and finalize such procedures with regard to non-traditional measurement techniques by the fourth quarter of 2019;
  • Ensure that the 2011 National Emissions Inventory has a complete estimate for the oil and gas sector for both criteria air pollutants and hazardous air pollutants, by the first quarter of 2014; and
  • Issue final guidance on the method for calculating default nonpoint emission estimates to enter into the National Emissions Inventory when states do not submit nonpoint data for oil and gas production, by the third quarter of 2014.

EPA further noted in its response, however, that the Agency’s “timely execution of the corrective actions is directly dependent upon the availability of resources.”

The bottom line is that EPA will be scrutinizing air emissions factors for the oil and gas sector. Industry thus should be alert to the possibility of data requests from EPA and, in the long-term, changes to emissions factors, which may impact air permitting compliance strategy.