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EPA hearing on gas drilling pollution in W. Pa.

By Kevin Begos

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 27 2011 2:45 p.m. MDT

Rich Antonucci, right, who owns a 50-acre farm in Richmond, Ohio, signs a petition at the Sierra Club table outside a public hearing held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on proposed rules to reduce air pollution from oil and gas drilling operations in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011.

Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

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PITTSBURGH — A public hearing Tuesday on proposed rules to reduce air pollution from oil and gas drilling operations found at least some points of agreement between industry and environmental groups.

Howard Feldman, the director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, was the first speaker at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hearing in Pittsburgh.

Feldman asked the EPA to extend the public comment period and give companies a one-year extension to comply with the new rules. The current EPA timeline would see the rules take effect in the spring of 2012.

But Feldman told The Associated Press that industry isn't opposed to the basic concept of the EPA proposal, which would apply new pollution control standards to about 25,000 gas wells that are hydraulically fractured, or fracked, each year. The fracking process blasts large amounts of water deep into the earth to break up dense shale and allow natural gas to escape.

"We think EPA has done a good job on the rule. We think it's pretty reasonable," Feldman said. "We just need a few more accommodations to make this work smoothly."

The technology to implement the proposed rule allows drillers to capture and sell gas that would normally go to waste. EPA estimates that the rule would actually save the industry about $30 million each year.

"A lot of companies are doing that already," Feldman said of the capture process.

But some said the issues in Pennsylvania require more time to review.

Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said her group thinks there's "a lot more work to do" on the proposed rules, which could place a heavy burden on industry.

But citizens and environmental groups said there should be no delays in implementing the rules, because there are already problems.

Janet McIntyre said the air outside her Butler county home makes her and others sick. Officials with the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection haven't even taken air quality tests, she said, despite numerous visits. Butler is about 40 miles north of Pittsburgh. She said seven gas wells are within a mile of the house.

"They have taken what is mine and I want it back," she said of clean air.

Lois Bjornson, a mother who lives in North Bethlehem, about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh, said she keeps the house windows closed on the side that's downwind from a gas drilling rig.

"This is like the Saudi Arabia of America," she said of the gas-rich Marcellus region. Bjornson told the AP that she has friends who work in the drilling industry, and she knows it's not going away. But she said regulations are necessary because some companies have "a quite arrogant approach."

Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of the mid-Atlantic, said his group thinks EPA should make the rule even stronger. But Stewart said natural gas does have a place "as a bridge to cleaner technologies."

Stewart said a run-of-the-mill electric plant that runs on natural gas is still cleaner than a coal-fired plant that has been upgraded with emissions control technology. Some electric plants have recently switched their fuel from coal to gas.

The proposed rules would also apply to new oil rigs, but EPA said the majority of new wells produce gas.

The hearing was scheduled to last until 8 p.m. at the David Lawrence Convention Center. More hearings will be held in Denver and Arlington, Texas.

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