The way environmental groups see it, there’s a gaping hole in what the public knows about toxic chemicals released into communities. A wide range of factories and facilities must report to a key federal inventory, but not the companies that extract oil and gas.
Environmental and open-government groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency two years ago to add the industry to its Toxics Release Inventory, saying the agency’s own estimate suggests those firms emit more hazardous air pollutants than any sector except power plants. The EPA has yet to respond. This morning nine groups sued to press for action.
“The oil and gas extraction industry is somewhat unique in being really almost the last major industry group not to report,” said the suit’s lead attorney, Adam Kron of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group that presses for enforcement of pollution laws. “We’re not talking about a tiny industry that doesn’t matter.”
The EPA did not comment on the suit. A spokeswoman said the agency hadn't received it yet.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., doesn’t ask the court to order the EPA to include the extraction industry in the inventory — though that could be the subject of a later suit. For now, the plaintiffs simply want the EPA to act on the 2012 petition, whether yay or nay.
Two trade groups, the American Petroleum Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, did not respond to requests for comment. But the tug-of-war over the Toxics Release Inventory isn’t a new battle. The EPA considered including oil and gas extraction firms in the 1990s and chose not to do so.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based industry group, argued in a response to the 2012 petition that the agency’s original decision remains the right one.
Though the industry has grown substantially since the 1990s, the many thousands of wells and related sites dotting rural and urban landscapes don’t individually emit enough chemicals to get above the threshold required for firms to report to the Toxics Release Inventory, the coalition said in a 2012 filing with the EPA.
“While Oil and Gas has undoubtedly evolved over the past fifteen years, the basis of EPA’s determination has not changed,” wrote the coalition’s then-president, Kathryn Z. Klaber.
Last year the Environmental Integrity Project released an analysis suggesting that the larger sites, at least, meet the threshold that a facility use at least 10,000 pounds of any one chemical. The group collected air-emissions data from six major oil and gas states and said nearly 400 sites, including compressor stations and processing facilities, reported releases of at least that amount.
Kron thinks the number of locations meeting the threshold is far higher, given that the states provided information on what was ultimately emitted into the air, not what was used on site.
That information offers a taste of toxic releases, but it’s not the bigger picture offered by the national inventory, which also tracks releases into water and soil. The inventory is free and readily accessible online, whereas state information must be requested and can come with a fee attached, Kron said.