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EPA Sued Over Flaring at Gas Processing, Industrial Facilities

A coalition of 10 environmental groups is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for what it claims are outdated standards for gas flaring that may be leading to increased air pollution.

The EPA is supposed to update its requirements for flares every eight years under the Clean Air Act, but has not in the 34 years since they went into effect in 1986, the lawsuit states.

Flares are commonly used by oil and natural gas production and processing facilities, petrochemical plants, bulk gasoline terminals and landfills to burn off waste gases, “which contain hazardous pollutants and smog-forming compounds,” the suit states. If done correctly, the process is supposed to burn off 98 percent of organic pollutants. But the suit argues that the outdated regulations no longer reflect the best practices for flaring.

“Based on EPA’s own data and findings, however, the actual destruction efficiency of flares operating under these outdates requirements can be 90 percent or even lower, meaning that emissions are five or more times higher than estimated or reported by plant operators,” the lawsuit states.

“Domestically, flaring has become more of an issue with the rapid development of unconventional tight oil and gas resources over the past two decades, beginning with shale gas,” a June 2019 report by the Office of Fossil Fuels of the U.S. Department of Energy indicates. “While each producing gas region flares gas for various reasons, the lack of a direct market access for the gas is the most prevalent reason for ongoing flaring.”

The report also looked at potential options to economically capture and use that gas while limiting the use of flaring.

Flaring in Pennsylvania is overseen by the Department of Environmental Protection, using the EPA requirements. DEP spokeswoman Lauren Fraley said that the DEP rules also require new flaring sources to comply with best available technology requirements.

The Shell petrochemical plant under construction in Beaver County will use two enclosed high-pressure flares and an elevated open flare to burn off VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from the cracking process that turns molecules of ethane into ethylene and polyethylene.

In Texas, the largest producer of natural gas in the U.S., flaring has been common, particularly in the Permian Basin, where natural gas is a byproduct of oil drilling and the infrastructure is inadequate to get the gas to market. As flaring has increased, so has pressure on regulators to limit the practice.

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