The EPA Loss in Court You Didn’t Hear About, But Could Affect You More in DFW

Let's face it, the EPA legal team has taken a bunch of hits lately. Losses in court over the Texas Flex permitting plan and national cross state pollution rules, among others, have gotten lots of headlines, but for various reasons may not be as awful as they first sound to environmentalists.

But there was a recent ruling that did hit home for metropolitan areas like DFW that are a) already in "non-attainment" of the federal ozone, or smog, standard, and, b) host lots of urban gas and oil drilling. You probably didn't hear about it, but it may have more of an impact on your air here because it once again left a large loophole in current law that allows the oil and gas sector to escape emissions "off-setting."

According to the Clean Air Act, every large industry that comes to set up shop in a non-attainment area like DFW must decrease as much pollution as it estimates it will increase. This is required so that new pollution doesn't just take the place of pollution that's been reduced from industries already operating in the area. Otherwise, there would be a large imbalance between new industries and established ones that would put air quality progress in peril.

And that's exactly what's happening in DFW.

For a decade now, gas mining in the Barnett Shale has added tons and tons of new air pollution to the North Texas airshed that has not had to be off-set with reductions. While emissions from this industrial sector grew, pollution from local cars, power plants and cement kilns actually decreased. Based on past experience DFW should be making headway toward cleaner air. But we're not. For the last two years, DFW air quality progress has stagnated and even begun rolling backwards. This year we already have five monitors out of compliance with a 1997 ozone standard, compared to just one in 2010.

So why aren't gas emissions subject to Clean Air Act  "off-sets" just like a power plant or cement kiln? Because nobody writing the Clean Air Act in 1970, or its amendments in 1991, anticipated urban drilling on the scale we're experiencing it in DFW these days. Nobody foresaw the establishment of a huge gas patch in a large metropolitan area with connected, but widely diffused sources of emissions spread out over hundreds of square miles.  They were thinking about "stationary sources" of pollution like coal-fired power plants, refineries and the like. The amounts needed to trigger off-setting are all oriented toward these massive facilities, not lots of smaller sources that eventually equal or surpass their output. As a result, there's a huge loophole that keeps the oil and gas industry from being regulated like any other industry in a non-attainment area.

EPA has recognized this loophole and tried to close it by ruling that facilities connected by process in the gas field may be treated as one large source of pollution – the term is "aggregate." And this is the definition that a court recently shot down in a Michigan case:

"The Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held yesterday that EPA had no basis to find that the natural gas sweetening plant and sour gas production wells owned by Summit Petroleum Corp. in Rosebush, Mich., are "adjacent" under the statute and therefore a single source just because they shared some similar functions.

It is an important case for the oil and gas industry because it is the first appeals court ruling to address a recent EPA move seeking to more aggressively "aggregate" various nearby sources of air pollution at oil and gas facilities for permitting purposes.

The court ordered EPA on a 2-1 vote to consider again whether the facilities, spread over a 43-square-mile area, are "adjacent" under the "plain-meaning of the term," which focuses only on physical proximity."

Just in case there was any doubt about why the gas industry was challenging the EPA policy of aggregating, the next sentence of the article makes it clear:

"Industry groups object because it can bring the individual sources under the umbrella of more stringent Clean Air Act permitting requirements."

Now, of course adjacent in common law means next door. But what does it, or should it mean, in environmental law? The collective air pollution being generated by that 43 square mile complex could very well be "adjacent" to your lungs a short distance downwind. But the court didn't see it that way.

That means that going into the next clean air plan for DFW – one that will, at least theoretically be aimed at the new 75 parts per billion ozone standard –  EPA will not be able to "off-set" the large amounts of air pollution generated by gas mining and processing in the North Texas non-attainment area.

And that's why we have to do it ourselves, one city and one county at a time. Starting in Dallas. Starting now.

As part of the larger re-writing of the Dallas gas drilling ordinance, a very large and impressive coalition of homeowners groups, neighborhood associations, and environmental organizations have all endorsed the idea of Dallas requiring local off-sets for any pollution released by new gas facilities within the city limits. A company would have to pay for projects that would reduce as much pollution as it was estimated to release every year. Dallas would be the first city in the country to adopt such a policy, but it probably wouldn't t be the last. And it wouldn't take that many before you started seeing an impact on industry's emissions.

We have a model in the successful Green Cement Campaign of the last half decade, that also started in the Dallas City Council chambers with a first-in-the-nation vote. All it took was a dozen cities and counties passing green cement procurement ordinances to get the cement industry's attention. As of 2014, something like 300,000 tons of air pollution a year will have been eliminated because there are no more dirty wet kilns in North Texas.

We can do it again. This time with gas patch pollution. We have to. Nobody else is going to do it for us.

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