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Air pollution rules for 'fracking' wells announced -- but delayed

An MSNBC panel discusses President Obama's energy policies, including fracking.

The Obama administration on Wednesday announced long-awaited air pollution rules for the controversial natural gas drilling technique known as fracking, but surprised environmentalists by saying the rules would not be immediately enforced but instead phased in over more than two years.

"Pleased" with the rules but "disappointed" by the delay was how the Natural Resources Defense Council reacted to the announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We are disappointed that EPA has allowed industry until 2015 for full compliance," NRDC clean air analyst David Doniger told msnbc.com. 


"It should not take that long to build more of the truck-mounted rigs that can capture these gases and put them into the pipelines to be sold at a profit instead of leaked into our air," he added, referring to the fact that some producers already do that in the few critical days between when a well is drilled and when it starts producing.

The EPA insisted the rules were not being delayed but phased in. "There will be interim requirements," a spokesperson told msnbc.com.

Industry was supportive of the change.

"EPA has made some improvements in the rules," Howard Feldman, a policy staffer at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.

The American Lung Association was quick to tout the rules' health benefits.

"Natural gas production is expanding into highly populated areas of the country," Al Rizzo, its chairman, said in a statement. "We have seen irrefutable evidence of serious threats to human health from air pollutants emitted during oil and natural gas production, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including air toxics such as benzene and formaldehyde, as well as increasing levels of ozone and particulate matter. 

"These pollutants can worsen asthma, cause heart attacks, and harm the circulatory, respiratory, nervous, and other essential and vital life systems. They are also linked to cancer, developmental disorders, and even premature death," he added. "People most at risk of harm from breathing these air pollutants  will benefit the most from these standards, including: infants, children and teenagers; older adults; pregnant women; people with asthma and other lung diseases; people with cardiovascular disease; diabetics; people with low incomes; and healthy adults who work or exercise outdoors."

Doniger said he hoped that EPA incentives in the new standards would "encourage drilling firms to do the right thing before 2015."

The EPA noted that President Barack Obama last week issued an executive order directing agencies to streamline natural gas development. "The rule released today received important interagency feedback and provides industry flexibilities," it added in its announcement. "Based on new data provided during the public comment period, the final rule establishes a phase-in period that will ensure emissions reduction technology is broadly available."

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that "we believe that industry was correct in that we needed to have a ramp-up period."

The EPA proposed the rules last July, seeking for the first time to cut emissions of smog-forming compounds from fracked wells. The idea is to eventually curb those by 95 percent. In addition, the rules would cut those emissions a further 25 percent across traditional oil and gas wells, which already have emissions constraints.

A CNBC panel discusses new evidence that certain drilling can trigger earthquakes.

In fracking, large amounts of sand and water laced with chemicals are blasted deep underground to free natural gas and oil. Separate issues with fracking are whether it poses a danger to aquifers and whether wastewater from the process is triggering small earthquakes.

The EPA is studying potential health impacts to water supplies, while the U.S. Geological Survey is looking at the quake concerns.

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