The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday finalized the first federal standards that will curb smog-forming chemicals and other substances that may be released into the air during fracking, the increasingly popular drilling technique that promises to revolutionize natural gas production.

The new rules were finalized in response to a court deadline. They “reduce implementation costs while also ensuring they are achievable and can be met by relying on proven cost-effective technologies as well as processes already in use at approximately half of the fractured natural gas wells in the U.S.,” Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, told reporters.

McCarthy said natural gas will be a “key component” of the nation’s clean energy future. “These technologies will not only reduce 95% of the harmful emissions from these wells that contribute to smog and lead to health impacts, they will also enable companies to collect additional natural gas that can be sold,” she said.

The rules require operators of new hydraulically fractured natural gas wells to use technologies and practices to capture natural gas that might otherwise escape the well, which can subsequently be sold. McCarthy said that the EPA’s analysis of the final rules showed that they “are highly cost-effective, relying on widely available technologies and practices already deployed at approximately half of all fractured wells.” The rules are expected to result in $11 million to $19 in savings for industry each year. The EPA’s final standards also address emissions from storage tanks and other equipment.

The rule establishes a phase-in period that will ensure emissions reduction technology is broadly available. During the first phase, until January 2015, owners and operators must either flare their emissions or use emissions reduction technologies called “green completions,” technologies that are already widely deployed at wells. In 2015, all new fractured wells will be required to use green completions. The final rule does not require new federal permits.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a process whereby a mixture of water, chemicals, and a “proppant” (usually sand) is pumped into a well at extremely high pressures to fracture rock and allow natural gas to escape. An estimated 11,400 new wells are fractured each year; the EPA estimates another 1,400 existing wells are re-fractured to stimulate production or to produce natural gas from a different production zone.

These wells emit volatile organic compounds, which the EPA says contribute to smog formation, and air toxics, including cancer-causing benzene and hexane. The rule also targets a reduction of released methane, the primary constituent of natural gas and a greenhouse gas that is more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis for the rule estimates the value of the climate co-benefits that would result from this reduction at $440 million annually by 2015. This includes the value of climate-related benefits such as avoided health impacts, crop damage and damage to coastal properties,” the agency said.

Sources: POWERnews, EPA