Vail-area Rep. Polis pushes for more protections as EPA outlines tough new air standards for gas drilling

Hydraulic fracturing taken into consideration as process opens up shale-gas boom

By David O. Williams
Real AspenJuly 30, 2011
Vail-area U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., this week praised the work of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in proposing tough new air quality standards aimed at dramatically reducing smog- and cancer-causing pollution stemming from the ongoing shale gas boom opened up by the controversial hydraulic fracturing process.

“Small-town America shouldn't have Los Angeles-quality air, but in areas where gas drilling is booming that's exactly the case,” Polis said. “Until we can close industry exemptions and loopholes within the law, this overdue update to our clean air laws is welcome and desperately needed.”

Reacting to a lawsuit brought by two environmental groups that are very active in Colorado — WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance – the EPA was compelled to finalize a proposal for the new air-quality standards by Thursday, and the agency will now take public comment, including a hearing in Denver, before taking final action by Feb. 28 of 2012.

The proposed updated standards would compel the natural gas industry to use “cost-effective existing technologies to reduce emissions that contribute to smog pollution and can cause cancer while supporting the administration's priority of continuing to expand safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production,” according to an EPA release.
Natural gas flaring in North Park, Colo.
EcoFlights photo
“This administration has been clear that natural gas is a key component of our clean energy future, and the steps announced [Thursday] will help ensure responsible production of this domestic energy source,” said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation.

“Reducing these emissions will help cut toxic pollution that can increase cancer risks and smog that can cause asthma attacks and premature death — all while giving these operators additional product to bring to market.”

Polis and U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., have been very active in seeking greater environmental and public health protections against the potentially harmful effects of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” – a process in which large amounts of water, sand and undisclosed chemicals are injected under high pressure deep into natural gas wells to fracture tight geological formations and free up more natural gas.

Fracking has opened up vast new reserves of once unobtainable natural gas across the country – the EPA says 25,000 new and existing wells are fracked or re-fracked each year — but critics say the process is leading to more and more air and water pollution. Polis and Hinchey are both sponsors of the BREATHE Act, which would remove two natural gas drilling exemptions under the Clean Air Act.

The two lawmakers, responding to Thursday's EPA announcement, also joined 14 other House members in requesting that the federal agency also add hydrogen sulfide to the list of hazardous air pollutants within the Clean Air Act.

Dan Whitten, vice president of strategic communications for the industry trade group America's Natural Gas Alliance, issued the following statement Thursday:

“Natural gas producers are committed to safe and responsible development including the preservation of air quality in communities where we operate. We strongly believe that environmental protection and development of natural gas are not mutually exclusive. We will be studying EPA's proposed rules in the days and weeks ahead, and we will consider submitting comments as part of the notice and comment process.”

In analyzing the proposed new standards, environmental groups that prompted the updates through litigation estimated the regulations would ultimately save the industry money while potentially saving lives.

In a press release from a coalition of conservation groups, analysts estimate the rules will result in a net savings of $30 million a year because of the increased capture and sales of methane – much of which either leaks, or is simply flared or vented during drilling and other production processes.

The groups say the new rules will reduce volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions by 540,000 tons (or 25 percent nationwide); methane emissions by 3.4 million tons (26 percent); and toxic air pollutants such as benzene and other known human carcinogens by 38,000 tons (a 30 percent reduction).

“These rules are a win-win solution; they are major milestone as we work to safeguard our communities from the impacts of unchecked oil and gas drilling,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “These proposed make clear: drilling for oil and gas should not come at the expense of clean air.”

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