Solar: A Key to Reducing Air Pollution

Robert Ukeiley

A zero-emission standard for compressor engines could help reduce smog in urban and rural areas. Photo Credit: Dennis Schroeder, NREL 22610

On January 14, 2015, the Obama administration announced its strategy for reducing air pollution from the oil and natural gas industry. Like most of the Obama administration’s environmental efforts, the new strategy is something but not much. Of course, the best strategy to reduce air pollution, along with all other types of pollution from the oil and natural gas industry, is to increase the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. The Obama administration, even with a Republican-controlled Congress, could make massive strides in this regard but it hasn’t.

For example, all federal buildings could install solar photovoltaics (PV) in the next two years. This would be gigawatts and gigawatts. With the widespread availability of third-party financing, President Obama could do this solely through executive branch action. But he hasn’t.

Turning back to oil and natural gas air pollution regulation, the first and most prominent piece of the strategy is to fix a Clean Air Act New Source Performance Standard that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created in 2012. Because the New Source Performance Standard applies to only new sources, and because it uses proven technologies already in use rather than technology forcing, it will do little that would not have happened without the standard.

Equipment affected by this new standard includes engines that drive natural gas compressors. The smartest approach would be to require natural gas compressors to be powered by solar when possible. Most compressors are in rural areas with a lot of available space, which could accommodate a lot of solar PV. EPA will not propose this because the current EPA leadership prefers regulations that do not require the industry to do anything other than what they would have likely done without the regulation. In other words, current EPA management is uncomfortable with anything that disturbs the “business as usual” scenario.

We renewable energy advocates, however, have an opportunity to push for a zero-emission standard for compressor engines based on renewable energy. An alternative position we could take is to advocate for a requirement that all compressors be electric, but without a requirement mandating the source of that electricity. For example, there was a fossil fuel compressor station south of Atlanta, Georgia. When it switched to electric-powered engines, there was a measurable improvement in smog levels nearby.

Another part of the EPA’s “strategy” is to not regulate leaks in the natural gas distribution systems in cities and towns. These leaks not only release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but they also waste natural gas, which consumers end up paying for and which pose a serious risk of explosions in populated areas.

It is hard to understand why EPA would shirk its responsibility to address this part of the problem. We need to persuade EPA that a regulation that cuts greenhouse gases, saves consumers money, and prevents deadly explosions is a good thing worthy of implementing.

Robert Ukeiley

Robert Ukeiley ( is a lawyer who represents environmental nonprofits in Clean Air Act litigation affecting energy

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