Plant Flares Emit More Pollutants than Previously Thought, the EPA Reports

A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formula for calculating the amount of pollutants released by flares at refineries and chemical plants nationwide shows that those emissions are four times higher than previously thought.

A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formula for calculating the amount of pollutants released by flares at refineries and chemical plants nationwide shows that those emissions are four times higher than previously thought.

The EPA said last week that the court-ordered update of a decades-old method used by the government and individual industrial facilities to calculate pollution releases will provide more accurate estimates of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds released by the flaring or burning of waste gases at those facilities.

The change was triggered by a 2013 lawsuit against the EPA by Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C., environmental enforcement advocacy organization.

The EPA said the new formula does not apply to, and should not be used by, the expanding oil and gas development sector, a grouping that encompasses thousands of wells and compressor stations that occasionally flare gases, or gas processing facilities that regularly flare. An example of the latter is an ethane "cracker" that Shell Chemical Appalachia, a division of Royal Dutch Shell, is considering building along the Ohio River in Monaca, Beaver County.

The Environmental Integrity Project said it was disappointed by the exclusion of the oil and gas sector and is considering further legal action.

According to the lawsuit, EPA studies show that flaring releases pollutants at much higher levels than those used in an outdated guideline, which was based on 30-year-old data and hadn't been updated every three years as the Clean Air Act requires.

Calculations based on the new formula, according to Environment Integrity Project, indicate that an estimated 500 flares at approximately 100 refineries nationwide could be releasing up to 52,800 tons of volatile organic compounds annually instead of the 13,200 tons estimated by the EPA under the old formula. It also means that the public health toll from smog producing VOCs, which can cause respiratory problems and include carcinogens, is likely more than $120 million a year instead of the $30 million estimated under the old formula.

"The VOC air pollution plume from flares is four times larger than we thought, and that's too big to ignore. It multiplies their contribution to health problems," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

The EPA did not release information about how the new formula would impact permitting for those facilities.

Two industry trade groups, the American Chemical Council and the American Petroleum Institute, declined to comment on the new guideline, but during the public comment period on the new formula they expressed concerns it could produce emissions estimates that exceeded facility permit limits and could result in requirements to control emissions under federal and state operating permits.

Mr. Schaeffer, a former head of the EPA's enforcement division, said the new emissions estimates likely will mean that more refineries and chemical plants will be required to obtain air pollution control permits and limit emissions. He also said oil and gas facility flares could emit even more pollutants because of combustion inconsistencies.

"If the pollution released by petrochemical plants is four times higher, the flaring pollution from oil and gas operations is not going to be lower," he said. "They're going to be higher because they don't get a clean burn."

The EPA declined to say when it would establish a new emissions factor for the oil and gas industry. Bob Schell, who heads the EPA group that developed the refinery flare emissions factor based on field tests in Texas and Arkansas, said he is not aware of any oil and gas facility test data under consideration by the EPA.

Susan Rickens, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, said the new emissions factor will provide the state regulator with better estimates of chemical plant and refinery pollutant releases from flaring, and the state will begin using the new formula in its emissions inventories and permitting process.

"Changing the emission factors will have an impact on the calculation of actual emissions from these units that have not had [individual] emission testing done on them," Ms. Rickens said. "The owners and operators of the affected units must demonstrate compliance with the existing regulatory standards."

According to the DEP, there are 182 industrial facilities in Pennsylvania classified as either chemical plants or refineries, and 68 industrial flares. Some of those facilities operate multiple flares.

Sixteen chemical or refinery operations are in Allegheny County, but none regularly flare waste gases.

According to the EPA, its emissions factors are used by industrial facilities to estimate and report their emissions, but facilities can also use actual emissions stack testing to report their emissions. The EPA, in turn, uses those industry emissions reports to calculate local, regional and national emission inventories that identify and quantify individual pollution sources and establish emissions control targets.

Emissions from flaring can contain carbon particles, also known as soot, unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sometimes sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds. How much of those pollutants are emitted depends on the degree of combustion efficiency. Properly operated flares achieve at least 98 percent combustion efficiency, but Mr. Schaeffer said petrochemical facility flares have an average combustion efficiency of 92 percent.


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