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The Environmental Protection Agency has come out with new air pollution rules for the oil and gas industry. The timing may seem awkward. The new rules come just as President Obama tries to deflect Republican claims that he over-regulates the energy industry. Turns out, the rules were not administration's idea. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Several years ago, communities in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming were complaining about air pollution from natural gas booms in their local areas. Jeremy Nichols and his group WildEarth Guardians decided to sue the EPA to force the agency to clean up the drilling industry.
JEREMY NICHOLS: The drilling has pushed smog levels in very rural areas to unbelievable highs, higher than Los Angeles.
SHOGREN: WildEarth Guardians prevailed, and the EPA set about making new rules. Nichols had no inkling that by the time the rules were done, the drilling boom would have spread across the country and energy regulations would be shaping up into an issue for the presidential campaign.
NICHOLS: Back in 2008, we wanted to solve this distinctly Western problem, and in the meantime, this issue became a national issue.
SHOGREN: An engineering technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, sparked a nationwide drilling bonanza. The EPA says all that drilling sends significant amounts of pollution into the air, contributing to smog and making people sick. A lot of pollution and natural gas spew out of the well while drillers are waiting to connect the gas stream to a pipeline.
Starting in 2015, gas companies will be required to capture that pollution and wasted natural gas. In the meantime, companies will have to burn it in a flare, which makes it less harmful. Nichols is delighted.
NICHOLS: I think EPA pulled through in a big way here. I mean, this is going to have an immediate effect of keeping toxic pollution out of the air that people breathe.
SHOGREN: Gina McCarthy heads the EPA's air-pollution programs. She says the initiative will actually save companies money, because they will be able to sell natural gas that they've been wasting.
GINA MCCARTHY: It saves precious natural gas resources that otherwise would have been emitted into the atmosphere. It reduces smog. It protects public health. It's good for the economy. And it's certainly good for the environment.
SHOGREN: She says it won't slow down the industry. But that's not the story you'll get if you talk with Kathleen Sgamma, who represents drilling companies in the West.
KATHLEEN SGAMMA: This rule has a very large cost compared to the benefit.
SHOGREN: Sgamma is a vice president of Western Energy Alliance. She says gas drilling doesn't produce enough air pollution to be harmful. So it doesn't make sense to make companies buy all the equipment and do all the paperwork required by these rules. She says the initiative is contrary to what the president has been saying about his commitment to increasing domestic energy production.
SGAMMA: While we hear some good rhetoric, we're still seeing an administration that is making it more difficult and costly to develop natural gas.
SHOGREN: That's just the point Republican Mitt Romney was making on the campaign trail earlier this month.
MITT ROMNEY: This president has been an anti-energy president.
SHOGREN: Romney specifically criticized President Obama for trying to over-regulate fracking.
ROMNEY: And the intent, of course, is to slow down the development of our own resources.
SHOGREN: The boom is slowing down. That's because there's so much natural gas already on the market and prices are at historic lows. One thing's for certain, this issue will keep coming up, all the way to Election Day.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.
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