Polis follows up FRAC Act with BREATHE Act to strip clean air exemptions for gas drilling

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis on Thursday followed up his reintroduction this week of the FRAC Act — which would tighten federal regulation of natural gas drilling’s impacts to water quality — with the BREATHE Act, a bill that would remove two exemptions for gas drilling under the Clean Air Act.

Rep. Jared Polis
The huge spike in natural gas production in the United States over the last decade or so has brought air and water quality issues to the forefront in some unexpected places – like scenic Pinedale, Wyo., which recently saw several major drilling companies temporarily shut down operations because of ozone alerts. Polis, in a release Thursday, cited the Wyoming situation.

But closer to home, Garfield County – second only to Weld County in terms of Colorado drilling activity – has been the scene of intense public debate about air quality standards. Air quality is a major focus of an ongoing health impact assessment paid for by the county and in many ways colors the debate over major new drilling proposals in and around subdivisions in Silt and Battlement Mesa.

Polis, a Boulder Democrat, has taken up the cause of better regulating natural gas drilling since being elected in 2008. His 2nd Congressional District doesn’t include much drilling – in fact it ends at the eastern edge of the Garfield County gas patch. But some Republicans in rural areas of Polis’ district would like to join Republican Scott Tipton’s 3rd Congressional District, which does include Garfield County and an enormous amount of energy extraction activity on the Western Slope.

Tipton, since beating out Democrat John Salazar in last year’s midterm election, has been relentlessly trying to roll back the policies of Salazar’s brother Ken – a former Colorado senator who now heads up the Obama administration’s Department of the Interior. Tipton also has joined with other Colorado Republicans in seeking to reduce the overall influence and regulatory authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Polis on Thursday joined with Reps. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., whose district is in the midst of a major natural gas boom, and Rush Holt, D-N.J., to introduce the BREATHE (Bringing Reductions to Energy’s Airborne Toxic Health Effects) Act, which would close two gas drilling exemptions under the Clean Air Act.

“The sheer number of wells has grown exponentially in recent years, and this growth correlates directly to an impact on regional air quality and resident health in areas of active drilling,” Polis said in a release.

“Surely we wouldn’t assume that as long as one car meets emissions standards, 20,000 cars wouldn’t affect air quality. Unfortunately, this exact false logic is currently being applied to oil and gas drilling and it’s causing noticeable health impacts. It’s simply common sense to ensure that we monitor extremely dangerous emissions, equip communities in heavy drilling areas with the tools they need to stay safe, and reverse these exemptions to the Clean Air Act.”

Natural gas production in the United States is up 20 percent over the last six years, and that statistic is expected to increase as the industry successfully positions itself as a cleaner-burning alternative to coal. In Colorado, that’s meant major legislation that compelled Xcel Energy to convert several aging coal-fired power plants over to natural gas, which burns about 50 percent cleaner than coal.

But natural gas comes with its own set of problems, according to conservationists, and therefore it needs to be regulated more tightly at the state and federal level.

Like the FRAC (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals) Act — which would remove an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act granted natural gas drilling under the Bush administration – the BREATHE Act targets two Clean Air Act exemptions.

According to a release from Polis, the bill specifically:

• Closes the NESHAP exemption: While some emissions requirements exist for individual wells, oil and gas drilling is exempted from aggregated “major source” requirements under the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP).
• In practical terms, this would prompt the industry to follow NESHAP’s required use of best available and currently used emissions control technology —technology that the best actors of the industry are already using and which has already proven to be profitable for the oil and gas industry in many instances.
• Closes the Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) exemption: Hydrogen Sulfide, emitted from oil and gas operations, is a highly toxic gas which can lead to neurological impairment or even death and is currently exempt from regulation as a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Originally included in the Clean Air Act’s list of hazardous air pollutants, H2S was removed with industry support.

Colorado Oil and Gas Association officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

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