EPA Agrees to Re-Examine Smog-Forming Air Pollution from Drilling Flares

In a Victory for Neighborhoods Groups, Feds Will Re-Evaluate the Accuracy of Old Estimates of Toxic Emissions of VOCs

Washington, D.C. – In response to a lawsuit from community groups in Texas and Louisiana, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today agreed to re-examine the accuracy of its estimates of air pollution from the flares at oil and gas drilling sites.

The agreement is in a consent decree that EPA lodged with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The decision is a victory for Air Alliance Houston, Community In-Power and Development Association, Inc., Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, which were represented in their lawsuit by the Environmental Integrity Project.

The organizations sued EPA in 2013 because sampling of the air in Houston over oil refineries showed levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs, a smog-forming pollutant) that were 10 to 100 times higher than the industry’s reports of what they were releasing into the air, as estimated by EPA-approved formulas called “emissions factors.”

In April 2015, EPA admitted that flares at refineries and chemical plants were releasing about four times more VOCs than estimated using its outdated formulas.

In the consent decree filled with the courts on Friday, the federal agency said that it will also re-examine, and if necessary revise, the emissions formulas for the flares at many of the roughly one million natural gas drilling and production sites across the U.S., with a final decision by February 5, 2018.

“EPA’s agreement to address this issue is important for public health reasons, because people who live downwind from drilling and fracking sites have a right to accurate information about how much air pollution they are breathing,” said Sparsh Khandeshi, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. “States also need accurate data about this air pollution so they can approve – or not approve – more permits for drilling sites, based on their real impact to air quality.”

Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade said:  “We are glad to have this victory and look forward to the day when we won’t have to sue to get the most basic clean air protections. There is still too much pollution. But we will keep standing up for ourselves, invoking the words of the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota: we are protectors.”

Roughly 80 percent of industries do not actually monitor emissions from their flares and other facilities, and instead rely on estimates using formulas – called “emission factors” — approved by EPA to comply with the reporting requirements of the federal Clean Air Act.

EPA’s current emission factor for air pollution (VOCs) from flares at natural gas production sites is more than three decades old, dating to 1985, although the law requires EPA to review and if necessary revise these formulas every three years.

Adrian Shelley, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston, said: “Members of industry have a saying, ‘What gets measured gets improved.’ Only by accurately measuring emissions can we reduce pollution and protect public health.”

“It is critical that the EPA does all it can to help protect human health from dangerous toxins in the air that we breathe,” said Hilton Kelley, Executive Director of the Port-Arthur, Texas-based Community In-Power and Development Association. “There is a disproportionate number of polluting industries located in the city of Port Arthur, Texas.  So we would like to urge EPA to put all safeguards in place to help protect our children, our families, and our elderly.”

For a copy of the consent decree, click here.


Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project (443) 510-2574 or tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org

Adrian Shelley, Executive Director, Air Alliance Houston (713) 528-3779 or adrian@airalliancehouston.org.

Anne Rolfes, Founding Director, Louisiana Bucket Brigade (504) 484-3433 or anne@labucketbrigade.org.

Hilton Kelley, Executive Director of the Community In-Power and Development Association  (409) 498-1088 or HiltonKelley5011@gmail.com

Juan Parras, Director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (281) 513-7799 or parras.juan@gmail.com.