Oil and gas companies will have to capture toxic and climate-altering gases from wells, storage sites and pipelines under new air quality standards issued on Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The rule is the first federal effort to address serious air pollution associated with the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which releases toxic and cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and hexane, as well as methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
The standards were proposed last summer in response to complaints from citizens and environmental groups that gases escaping from the 13,000 wells drilled each year by fracking were causing health problems and widespread air pollution.
Industry groups said meeting the proposed standards would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and slow the boom in domestic natural gas production. The original proposal was significantly revised, giving industry more than two years to comply and lowering the cost.
“Because these regulations rely on technologies and practices that are already in use by some companies and required by some states, they are practical, flexible, affordable and achievable,” Gina McCarthy, head of the E.P.A.’s office of air and radiation, said in a conference call. “Natural gas is key to our clean energy future.”
She said the new rule would reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds by 190,000 to 290,000 tons per year and toxic air pollutants by 12,000 to 20,000 tons a year.
The agency said that the industry could meet the standards by deploying existing technology, and that nearly half the wells drilled using hydraulic fracturing already had the gas capture equipment, known as “green completions.”
The agency said that once the rule was fully effective, in January 2015, the industry would save $11 million to $19 million a year because drillers would be able to capture and sell the methane that is now burned off, or flared.
Methane is a potent heat-trapping gas, 20 times more powerful in its effect on the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The E.P.A. estimates that capturing methane from thousands of new wells will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 28 million to 44 million tons a year, making the rule one of the federal government’s largest measures to mitigate climate change.