The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed new standards that aim to reduce air pollution from oil and gas drilling operations. The proposed updated standards – which are being issued in response to a court order – would, according to the EPA, rely on existing technologies to reduce emissions.

The proposal aims to cut smog-forming volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from several types of processes and equipment used in the oil and gas industry, including a 95-percent reduction in VOCs emitted during the completion of new and modified hydraulically fractured wells. This reduction, the EPA says, would largely be accomplished by capturing natural gas that currently escapes to the air and making that gas available for sale through technologies and processes already in use by several companies and required in some states.

Natural gas production in the U.S. is growing, with more than 25,000 new and existing wells fractured or re-fractured each year. The VOC reductions in the proposal are expected to help reduce ozone nonattainment problems in many areas where oil and gas production occurs. In addition, the EPA says VOC reductions would yield a significant environmental benefit by reducing methane emissions from new and modified wells. ?Methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas – more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The ?EPA’s analysis of the proposed changes, which also include requirements for storage tanks and other equipment, show they are highly cost-effective, with a net savings to the industry of tens of millions of dollars annually from the value of natural gas that would no longer escape to the air.

The proposal includes reviews of four air regulations for the oil and natural gas industry, as required by the Clean Air Act: a new source performance standard for VOCs from equipment leaks at gas processing plants; a new source performance standard for sulfur dioxide emissions from gas processing plants; an air toxics standard for oil and natural gas production; and an air toxics standard for natural gas transmission and storage.

The EPA is under a consent decree requiring the agency to sign a proposal by July 28, 2011 and take final action by Feb. 28, 2012. As part of the public comment period, the EPA will hold three public hearings in the Dallas, Denver and Pittsburgh areas. The EPA says details on the hearings will be announced soon.