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Sen. Inhofe Jabs EPA's Region 6 Office Over Texas Fight, Oil and Gas Regs

Gabriel Nelson
The New York Times
July 16, 2010

Unhappy with U.S. EPA's Dallas-based Region 6 office and concerned about a potential crackdown on air pollution from shale gas drilling, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson for answers.

 Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma sent a letter (pdf) to Jackson yesterday seeking documents related to EPA's ongoing dispute with Texas regulators over air quality permitting. Though he stopped short of criticizing Region 6 chief Al Armendariz, Inhofe said the office has "alarmed state and local officials and regulated entities" with its willingness to subjugate state authority and impose heavy costs on businesses.

"Environmental management and enforcement have long been shared by states and the federal government. Yet Region 6 appears to be overriding the federal-state partnership that has worked successfully for over forty years," Inhofe said in a statement.

The regional office has rejected two of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's programs in recent months, most recently the "flexible" permitting regime used by some of the state's largest power plants, refineries and factories. Armendariz has threatened to take over Texas' entire air quality program, rankling state officials, who say that federal regulators are ignoring the state's authority to implement the Clean Air Act as it sees fit (E&ENews PM, June 30).

Inhofe also requested details on what has been described by EPA as a wide-reaching review of air regulations, asking whether the agency is embarking on an effort to toughen regulation of shale gas development. Those rules would be particularly relevant to Region 6, which includes Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas.

EPA has scheduled public comment sessions in Dallas and Denver next month, meeting with industry groups in two hubs of the American oil and gas industry. The review, which is still in the early stages, covers "oil and natural gas exploration and production, as well as natural gas processing, transmission, storage, and distribution," EPA said in a notice.

Based on the information being requested from businesses, the agency seems to be headed toward new regulations on the emissions produced by shale gas development, Inhofe suggests in the letter.

Armendariz has told the industry to provide a breakdown of emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), two byproducts of shale gas production. While federal officials say the pollution surveys are needed for the upcoming review of federal ozone standards, Inhofe says the reports would be a redundant and unnecessary burden on industry because the emissions information would eventually have to be provided when states develop ozone implementation plans.

The request doesn't add up, Inhofe wrote. Regulators asked for data from every Region 6 state except New Mexico. They also sought information on equipment inventories, production plans and drilling schedules.

"The focus of the information appears to be on areas with shale production and exploration," he wrote. If the agency is reviewing broader ozone standards, he added, "what is the basis for only requesting information from the oil and gas production and exploration industry?"

While federal officials lack the authority to impose some restrictions on emissions from shale gas drilling, the regional office has been weighing its options as an increasing number of neighbors complain about pollution from drilling operations (Greenwire, May 11).

Shale gas emissions were an area of expertise for Armendariz before he become head of Region 6. As an engineering professor at Southern Methodist University, he studied the Barnett Shale and produced a report (pdf) for the Environmental Defense Fund.

With EPA moving toward a revision of the federal standard for particulate matter next year, future administrators of EPA could focus regulatory attention on NOx and VOCs, Armendariz wrote in the report.

"Cost effective control strategies are readily available that can substantially reduce emissions, and in some cases, reduce costs for oil and gas operators," he concluded, adding that "there are significant opportunities available to improve local and regional air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by applying readily available methods to oil and gas production activities in the Barnett Shale."