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ERA's Environmental Compliance Management Blog

Oil & Gas EH&S, Chemical Emission Factors to Change: Are You Ready?

Posted by Alex Chamberlain

Alex Chamberlain is a writer for ERA Environmental Management Solutions.

fireAs the result of a lawsuit filed against the EPA, emission factors for VOC emissions from flares, wastewater treatment plants, and liquid storage tanks used by the Oil & Gas and chemical manufacturing industries are slated for review and potentially revision by the end of 2014.

This could mean that your business will face some significant challenges to your air emissions compliance by the end of 2014… a facility that was once in compliance could suddenly find its benzene emissions are far more than expected.

So how did the emission factors (EFs) for the Oil & Gas and chemical manufacturing industries get placed on the 2014 review list? And what can you do to prepare for any upcoming changes?

The Lawsuit

Emission factors for tanks, flares, and wastewater treatment plants were the primary focus of a recent lawsuit filed against the EPA by a collection of community and environmental groups located in Texas and Louisiana in May 2013.

The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to review and, if necessary, revise emission factors every three years. In the case of tanks, flares, and wastewater treatment plants, EPA has failed to review the related EFs for up to 20 years.

Because the EFs being used by manufacturers were out of date, the emissions reported properly and according to EPA standards were found to be anywhere from 10-100 times less than real-world emissions monitoring data showed. There was a dramatic gap between reported emissions and observed emissions from certain emission sources - not by fault of reporters, but because the emission calculations hadn’t been updated.

The lawsuit, lead by the  Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of  Air Alliance Houston, Community in Power and Development Association, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy, alleged that the EPA must meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act by the end of 2014 to protect public health, provide accurate data for regulatory decisions, and to live up to the mission of the Clean Air Act.

In February 2014, the EPA settled in a consent decree agreement with the plaintiff, committing to fulfilling the Act’s requirements this year.

The Emission Factors up for Review

EPA has agreed to review EFs for Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions for tanks, wastewater treatment plants, and flares. These EFs are currently graded internally by EPA as either D (below average) or E (poor) because they are based on research data as much as three decades old. The VOC category also contains some of the most dangerous emissions to human health. This makes them a prime candidate for revision.

While there is no predicting exactly which EFs will be revised, the lawsuit highlighted a group of VOC emissions that have not been revised or reviewed for a significant amount of time - making them the most likely candidates for change.

Any business using flares, tanks, or treating wastewater should prepare for changes to their emission estimations, but any business with the following speciated VOC emissions should go the extra mile in their preparations for change:

  • benzene (reviewed 7 years ago)
  • xylene (last reviewed 1994 according to lawsuit)
  • methyl ethyl ketone  (last reviewed 1994 according to lawsuit)
  • toluene  (last reviewed 1994 according to lawsuit)
  • ethyl oxide  (last reviewed 1986 according to lawsuit)
  • acrylonitrile  (last reviewed 1984 according to lawsuit)
  • chloroform (last reviewed 1984 according to lawsuit)
  • chlorobenzene  (last reviewed 1994 according to lawsuit)
  • trichloroethylene (last reviewed 1989 according to lawsuit)

Additionally, EFs for flares outlined in the current AP-42 document are based on research from a study that is now 30 years. The Environmental Integrity Project claims in their suit that since 2006, eleven new studies have been published that show the original flare study overestimated the effectiveness of flares by up to 28% in some cases. One outcome of the lawsuit is that the EPA will revisit these new studies and use more recent data for creating the new flare EFs. This means that anyone using flares onsite to control VOC emissions will also likely see a change in how they calculate the VOC reduction their flare provides.

The Outcome

The EPA’s review and potential revision of the above-mentioned emission factors for tanks, wastewater treatment plants, and flares will take place in two phases:

  • No later than August 19, 2014, EPA must review and either propose revisions to the emission factors or propose that a revision is unnecessary. These revisions or proposed determinations must be published online at the EPA’s AP-42 website (http://www.epa.gov/ttn/chief/ap42).

  • No later than December 19, 2014 EPA must issue final revisions to the emission factors for the above or issue a final determination that no change is required. These will also be published and made public on the AP-42 site.

By the end of 2014, emission factors for your business could be found to be outdated and require revision. This means your emission inventories might vary greatly from previous years, and even fall outside the acceptable limits of your permit.

What this means for Industry

Depending on which EFs the EPA determines need revision, and the extent to how great those revisions are, there could be significant shockwaves throughout the Oil & Gas and Chemical Manufacturing industries.

While most businesses will typically just see an increase in the emissions their estimations return, some facilities that are already on the edge of their allowable emissions might find fall out of compliance without having changed their actual activities.

This lawsuit, and the resulting EPA actions, are not a reflection on manufacturers’ willingness or ability to comply with environmental regulations. However, the rules of compliance could change, and manufacturers are the ones that need to keep up.

For some that will mean installing better control devices to lower emissions, others might find materials that are more efficient to process, and others might see very little change. Who will be affected, and to what degree, is unclear for now. Industries will have a better picture of their futures once the EPA publishes its proposals in August 2014.

What Should your Business Do?

Regardless of what changes are coming down the pipeline, there are a few actions that every manufacturer in the Oil & Gas or Chemical Manufacturing industries should take.

First, make sure that all your emission reports and records for the past five years are in order. During periods of regulatory review, your regulators and the public are on high alert for missing data, noncompliant facilities, or any indication that you aren’t being as transparent about your impact on the environment as possible. Now is the best time to act in order to avoid public backlash or undue scrutiny in order to protect your reputation.

There’s another specific bonus to having all your records in order: when it comes time for public and industry commentary on the proposed regulatory changes, you’ll have data to make your opinion heard and respected.

The next step is to monitor and keep on top of the changes as they are proposed and commented on. Have an EH&S manager give the published proposals a thorough review and perform an internal emissions audit using the new emission factors. Doing an internal audit will give you an advanced look into where your compliance will stand if the proposed changes come into effect - you’ll be protected from the unpleasant surprise that your facility is no longer in compliance with emission limits.

Find out if your facility generates any of the VOCs that are under extra scrutiny this year, and account for the emissions from all of your tanks, flares, and wastewater treatment processes. It’s also a good time to start assessing alternate materials that you could use that would eliminate or reduce these VOCs of concern before the new EFs take effect. Because liquid storage tank emissions are already difficult to account for, give some particular attention to the emissions from your tanks.

The final step is to assess your options in regards to compliance management programs. Oil & Gas and chemical manufacturers have a greater-than-average flow of petrochemical materials through their processes, and have complex emissions inventories. Having the ability to keep your EH&S management agile enough to keep up with changing regulations and having to perform on the fly assessments of your current (and potential) emissions is becoming vitally important.

Keep in mind that any program you implement, whether that’s an internal program or a turn-key EH&S software solution, should also provide regulatory support for changes and updates that affect your industry. It should be dynamic enough to support your business’ needs today, and for any changes the EPA proposes in the coming year. For example, ERA Environmental Management Solutions employs a full-time team of regulatory researchers that ensure ERA software always has the most up to date emission factors built-in, and they can tell you which  of your processes and materials are affected.

How Can You Get Involved?

If you have an opinion or information you want the EPA to be aware of when it is making its final decisions, watch the Federal Register for and AP-42 website for publications of the proposals and any calls for public comment. The EPA has already collected public commentary on the settlement of the 2013 lawsuit (from February 2013 - March 2013), and there will likely be further opportunities for public comment as proposals are published.

How are you preparing for changes to emission factors for your flares, tanks, and water treatment? ERA wants to know: leave your opinion in the comments section.

You can also download our free eBook “Texas Oil & Gas Air Emissions Update 2014” for information on emissions from flares, tanks, and for industry advice on Alternate Operating Scenarios (AOS) and MSS events by clicking the button below.

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Alex Chamberlain

About the Author: Alex Chamberlain is a writer and blogger who regularly contributes to ERA Environmental Management Solutions' blog. You can find Alex on Google+LinkedIn & ERA's Environmental Compliance blog

Photo credit: Tim Evanson, Creative Commons