The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality moved this week to impose tougher regulations on natural gas drillers but opted to try them out only in the Barnett Shale area in North Texas before applying them statewide.
The state agency voted Wednesday to beef up its air emission limits on toxic chemicals associated with natural gas drilling and required producers to test their drilling sites more stringently.
It's the first major change to the agency's drilling regulations in over a decade and "light-years ahead" of the current rules, said Richard Hyde, the deputy director of permitting and registration.
Industry interests pushed for the trial period to see whether changes will be needed before the rest of the state falls under the rules.
"Those are tremendous changes and huge steps forward for both TCEQ and the industry," Celina Romero of the Texas Pipeline Association told commissioners.
Testing the rules in one area will allow the agency to make changes if they prove too complicated or burdensome, she said.
The rules will take effect April 1 in the 23-county Barnett Shale region, which includes Tarrant, Dallas, Parker, Johnson and Wise counties. Agency officials expect to apply them to the rest of the state early next year.
The commissioners ended up approving weaker rules than those initially proposed by the agency over the summer. The agency decided against implementing stricter limits on formaldehyde emissions, even though questions linger over whether it is a dangerous byproduct of the combustion engines used by the compressor stations that pump gas from wells to transmission lines.
In a departure from its usual combativeness with its federal counterpart, the agency decided that the tougher formaldehyde policy that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is implementing will suffice, Hyde said.
State rules were "a little unnecessary because the federal government is taking care of that piece of it," Hyde said.
The commissioners also opted for a less-stringent limit on benzene emissions than proposed last year. Hyde said the agency received better data in recent months that made it comfortable with a more lenient limit.
The regulations are likely to increase drilling costs, but not enough to deter production, according to the agency's documents.
Cyrus Reed, with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, generally praised the updated rules given all the competing interests.
"We, of course, wanted it to be much stronger," Reed said.
He said he is disappointed that the rules won't cover existing facilities and that the new regulations won't be immediately implemented statewide.
State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said the agency made too many concessions to industry.
"Some of these are significant, and they completely undermine the rules," Burnam said.
"It's better than nothing, but it's not as good as it should be."
Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695