Vail Valley Rep. Polis keeps up heat on natural gas industry as local GOP talks redistricting

By David O. Williams
Real AspenMarch 18, 2011
The Vail Valley's U.S. congressman, Democrat Jared Polis of Boulder, doesn't have a lot of natural gas drilling in his 2nd Congressional District, which stretches from Boulder to the western edge of Eagle County. But he's been trying to regulate the industry with gusto at the federal level lately.

Some Eagle County Republicans argue that the Vail Valley has more in common with the more rural areas of the Western Slope like gas-patch towns in neighboring Garfield County just to the west, which is the second most drilled county in the state and part of Republican Scott Tipton's 3rd Congressional District.

Eagle County used to be in CD3 and for years was represented by Republican Scott McInnis of Glenwood Springs. But the last round of redistricting put Vail and Eagle County into CD2 when Democrat Mark Udall, now a U.S. senator, was in the House. A new round of redistricting could reverse that move and put the Vail Valley back into CD3.
Polis, who was first elected in 2008 and re-elected last year, brings a very different environmental agenda to Congress than Tipton, who last year ousted Democrat John Salazar from CD3. No issue underscores that difference more than natural gas drilling.

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.

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 temporarily companies shut down operations because of ozone alerts. Polis, in a release Thursday, cited the Wyoming situation.

But closer to home, Garfield County 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 has joined Denver Democrat Diana DeGette and taken up the cause of better regulating natural gas drilling. He's also been a champion of adding more public lands to the nation's wilderness inventory, which prohibits all mechanized vehicle travel and, obviously, prohibits energy extraction.

Tipton, since winning 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 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 release from Polis, the bill specifically:

• Closes the NESHAPs 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).

o 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.

FRAC Act redux

Polis and DeGette earlier this week reintroduced the FRAC Act to regain federal regulatory authority over the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

DeGette and Polis unsuccessfully ran the legislation last session, seeking to close the so-called “Halliburton Loophole” named for the oil and gas services company previously headed up by former Vice President Dick Cheney. It was during the Bush-Cheney administration in 2005 that Congress granted hydraulic fracturing an exemption from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

A Bush administration U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official in charge of water quality issues recently told the ProPublica website that an EPA study used to justify the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption should not have been used and that the current policy is too lenient in regulating fracking operations.

This is DeGette's third crack at removing the exemption and requiring oil and gas companies to reveal exactly what chemicals they're injecting under extremely high pressure, along with mostly water and sand, deep into natural gas wells to fracture tight geological formations and free up more gas.

DeGette, Polis and Hinchey -- another sponsor of the FRAC Act -- recently unveiled a congressional investigation that found oil and gas companies have been using diesel fuel in the fracking process, which many fear is contaminating groundwater supplies. A New York Times investigation of fracking found wastewater treatment facilities are being overwhelmed with sometimes radioactive fracking fluids.

“As we recognize the need for energy independence and alternative sources to power our nation, natural gas is an important economic driver and a critical bridge fuel,” DeGette said in a release.

“However, it is incumbent upon us to ensure the process for extracting natural gas from our land is done safely and responsibly. The FRAC Act takes necessary but reasonable steps to ensure our nation's drinking water is protected, and that as fracking operations continue to expand, communities can be assured that the economic benefits of natural gas are not coming at the expense of the health of their families.”

State regulators who oversee oil and gas drilling in Colorado have said the FRAC Act is unnecessary and could create another layer of regulation that could actually spread the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staff too thin.

Oil and gas industry officials have consistently pointed to a lack of evidence that fracking contaminates groundwater or poses a public health threat, but opponents of the practice say that's because chemical ingredients are not being revealed so it's difficult for regulators to know what to test for.

“There is a growing discrepancy between the natural gas industry's claim that nothing ever goes wrong and the drumbeat of investigations and personal tragedies which demonstrate a very different reality,” Polis said in a release.

“The FRAC Act is a simple, common-sense way to answer the serious concerns that accompany the rapid growth of drilling across the country. Our bill restores a basic, national safety-net that will ensure transparency within the industry and safeguard our communities. If there is truly nothing to worry about, then this bill will lay the public's concern to rest through science and sunlight.”

The House bill was introduced along with the Senate version, which is sponsored by Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. According to today's joint release by DeGette, Hinchey and Polis, the FRAC Act would specifically:

• Require disclosure of the chemical constituents used in the fracturing process, but not the proprietary chemical formula.

• The proprietary chemical formulas are protected under our bill – much like the way Coca-Cola must reveal the ingredients of Coke, but not their secret formula; oil and gas companies would have to reveal the chemicals but not the specific formula.

• Disclosure would be to the state, or to EPA, but only if EPA has primary enforcement responsibility in the state. The disclosures would then be made available to the public online.

• This bill does include an emergency provision that requires these proprietary chemical formulas to be disclosed to a treating physician, the State, or EPA in emergency situations where the information is needed to provide medical treatment.

• Repeal a provision added to the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempting the industry from complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), one of our landmark environmental and public health protection statutes.

• Most states have primacy over these types of wells, and the intent of this Act is to allow states to ensure that our drinking water is safe. EPA would set the standard, but a state would be able to incorporate hydraulic fracturing into the existing permitting process for each well, and so this would not require any new permitting process.

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