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2013 Polis-Cartwright bill to end Clean Air Act exemption for oil and gas production

Letter text:

Dear Member of Congress,

Our more than eighty organizations support the BREATHE Act—Bringing Reductions to Energy’s Airborne Toxic Health Effects, recently introduced by Representative Jared Polis (CO), Representative Matt Cartwright (PA) and numerous others in the House. This bill would close loopholes in the Clean Air Act which currently threaten public health and our environment by preventing adequate regulation of dangerous air pollution associated with oil and gas development. We urge you to support and co-sponsor this important legislation.

Our nation is experiencing a rush of oil and gas drilling largely brought about by the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) which has spurred development of previously less feasible energy resources in states across the nation. This drilling boom is affecting our landscapes and human communities in unprecedented ways. Millions of Americans live, work, attend school, or recreate on or near lands impacted by oil and gas development; there is growing evidence that this energy development can impact air quality and increase health threats for nearby residents.

It is well known that oil and gas drilling and related activities can emit an array of dangerous air pollutants known to cause harm to human health, including pollutants associated with cancer, respiratory diseases, reproductive problems, and other serious illnesses. Without proper safety measures, and enforcement of such measures, toxic substances can be released from active wells and other equipment at oil and gas production facilities, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes, and formaldehyde. In addition to the health risks from inhaling these pollutants, they and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are transformed into ozone (commonly referred to as smog), which brings additional serious health risks and is a growing concern in areas experiencing oil and gas development.

The National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAPs) under the Clean Air Act were designed to protect the public from major sources of toxic air pollution, as well as smaller sources that cumulatively account for the release of large volumes of toxic substances into the air. Unfortunately, the oil and gas industry and certain related activities are exempt from an essential part of the NESHAPs that requires aggregation of small sources. This exemption— not available to any other industry—allows the oil and gas industry to release large amounts of potentially dangerous air pollutants.

In addition, hydrogen sulfide was removed from the list of hazardous air pollutants subject to NESHAPs despite a 1993 study that clearly concluded that accidental releases of hydrogen sulfide during oil and gas development are a serious air quality concern and pose a great risk to public health. Hydrogen sulfide is associated with a range of health issues and exposure can even be fatal in extreme cases. Estimates indicate that 15 to 25 percent of all natural gas wells in the United States may contain hydrogen sulfide. Other potential sources of this toxic air pollutant are refineries, pulp and paper mills, natural gas processing and transmission facilities, concentrated animal feeding operations, sewage and landfill sites, and slaughterhouses and other animal processing facilities.

The BREATHE Act would provide a long overdue update to the Clean Air Act by ending the industry’s exemption from aggregated air quality standards, thereby better accounting for and categorizing emissions that require emissions reduction technologies when the sources of toxic air pollution reach dangerous levels. This bill would also add hydrogen sulfide to the list of regulated hazardous air pollutants.

If the aggregation loophole is eliminated, many emissions controls required to comply with NESHAPs would have the co-benefit of reducing the huge amount of methane emitted by the oil and gas industry. Methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas with a climate potency dozens of times higher (pound for pound) than that of carbon dioxide, is a significant contributor to the environmental and public health impacts that a warming climate is causing and increasingly will cause.

As a result of inadequate regulation of hazardous air pollutants, people across the country are growing increasingly concerned about threats to the environment and public health from oil and gas development. Yet in spite of these significant risks and concerns, oil and gas development is exempt from critical provisions of the Clean Air Act. These dangerous loopholes must be closed. The BREATHE Act would help ensure that the federal laws designed to protect the health and safety all Americans are fairly, consistently and effectively applied. We urge you to co-sponsor this important bill.


[See PDF for list of signers]