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Holding the Government Accountable

Open Government Win on Toxic Pollution

Photo: WildEarth Guardians / Flickr

Last week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal to expand a toxic pollution reporting program to include natural gas processing plants. The proposed rule is an important win for open government as it will increase public awareness of environmental impacts associated with these natural gas facilities, and will likely motivate companies to reduce toxic releases.

The Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program has been a transparency success story since it was established during the Reagan administration. In response to the 1984 Bhopal, India, disaster, in which toxic gases from a Union Carbide facility killed thousands, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). Part of the EPCRA law created the TRI program and required facilities within specified industries and with over 10 full-time employees to report on the amounts of toxic pollution they produced. The simple idea was that the public had a right to know what risks they faced from toxic chemicals being released to the air, water, and land.

The surprise success of the TRI program was that it didn’t just inform the public, it also spurred action by companies to significantly reduce the toxic pollution being generated. It is a terrific example of the power of information. And each time the program was expanded to include new industries or additional chemicals, reductions have again followed. The public spotlight can be a powerful motivator, encouraging facilities to improve and creating a competitive environment where companies strive to be cleaner than rival companies.

EPA’s proposed regulation comes in response to a 2012 petition filed by 19 environmental and public interest groups, including the Center for Effective Government, which became a part of the Project On Government Oversight last year. The petition urged the EPA to include oil and gas extraction facilities in the TRI reporting.

The EPA had considered including oil and gas exploration during an expansion of the program in 1996-97. The agency believed the industry sector generated significant quantities of tracked toxic chemicals but deferred adding them because of difficulties in defining a facility. Other industries have clearly defined facilities at one particular address. But oil and gas companies explore large geographic areas with multiple wells. Individual wells wouldn’t meet the program’s reporting threshold, but a company’s oil or gas field (multiple wells adjacent to each other in an area) would qualify if it were defined as a single facility. The petitioners took the position that after 20 years the EPA has enough policy experience defining facilities to overcome this challenge.

Instead of including the entire oil and gas extraction industry, as the petition requested, the EPA has proposed expanding TRI reporting to just natural gas processing plants, which are facilities that turn raw natural gas into fuel. The EPA estimates that there are 517 natural gas processing facilities across the country and that more than half would meet TRI reporting thresholds for 21 chemicals. The rule does not include any oil industry facilities or other types of natural gas facilities such as well sites, compressor stations, or pipelines.

“Today’s proposal by EPA marks significant progress for public health, the environment, and the right to know,” said Adam Kron, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project and lead on the petition. “The oil and gas industry releases an enormous amount of toxic pollutants every year, and communities deserve to know what they’re facing. We hope EPA will move swiftly to finalize and implement this simple yet vital public-reporting rule.”

The EPA is asking for public comments by March 7. However, the proposed rule comes on the eve of the transition to the Trump administration. It is fairly common for an incoming administration of a different party to freeze proposed regulations until they can be reviewed. Hopefully Trump officials will see the practicality and effectiveness of expanding toxic reporting to the natural gas industry.