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A Stand Against Big Oil

23 Jun 2016  |   Jonathan Hill

Tags: Energy, Dirty Energy, Congress, Clean Air, Policy

In the midst of a heated debate over a bill that threatens the clean air of millions of Americans, one representative offered an amendment that would have held oil and gas companies accountable: Representative Jared Polis, a democrat from Colorado’s 2nd district.  Rep. Polis sought to remedy some of the damage done by HR 4775, the so-called Ozone Standards Implementation Act. His amendment would have closed loopholes within the Clean Air Act that allow the oil and gas industries to release dangerous amounts of toxic air pollution without any consequences.

As the natural gas industry continues to grow throughout the nation, concerns over the impacts on our health and environment grow with it. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 15 million people live within a 1 mile radius of oil and natural gas facilities that were built after 2000. This does not include the thousands of wells built in the 20th century that are still producing today. As more communities find themselves living in the shadow of this industry, it is even more important for Congress to ensure their health and wellbeing are being protected. 

When discussing his amendment on the House floor, Rep. Polis emphasized the problem with the loopholes in the Clean Air Act: “This directly affects the air quality in my district. Take a county like Weld County, Colorado. There are over 20,000 operating fracking wells. Any one of those has a very small emissions profile. But in the aggregate, when you start talking about 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, it looks a lot more like multiple emissions-spewing factories or other highly polluting activity. And yet they are completely exempt from being aggregated.” In sum, these wells may not seem that dangerous when studied one by one, but in large concentrations their emissions can seriously pollute the air in the communities around them.  

In addition, Rep. Polis’ amendment placed hydrogen sulfide on the Clean Air Act’s list of hazardous materials. Hydrogen sulfide is a gas often released via gas and oil extraction. In low concentrations, the toxin can cause permanent lung irritation, and in high concentrations, it can cause death. 15 percent to 20 percent of gas wells emit hydrogen sulfide and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. However, oil and gas companies lobbied to remove it from the hazardous materials list, giving them a free pass to emit this toxic pollutant. 

The underlying bill, sponsored by Representative Pete Olson (R-TX), would jeopardize the health of the American people by undermining the EPA’s recently-updated standards for ozone pollution (a.k.a. smog). This legislation would delay the implementation of these vital health protections by at least ten years and double the Clean Air Act’s current five-year review periods for updating all national air quality standards, thereby allowing unhealthy air to persist even longer. 

Congressman Polis’ amendment is a common sense piece of legislation that protects the clean air our communities and families depend on by limiting toxic air pollutants coming from the oil and gas industry. Unfortunately, the amendment failed 160-251, mainly along party lines. There is still hope, however, for holding big oil accountable. Rep. Polis’ amendment drew its text from a bill the Congressman has introduced every year since 2011, the Bringing Reductions to Energy’s Airborne Toxic Health Effects Act, or BREATHE Act. The latest version of this bill, which currently sits in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has 64 cosponsors. We encourage more representatives to support this essential bill, and we will continue to hold accountable those members of Congress who vote to protect the oil and gas industry instead of clean air. To see if your representative stood up for clean air, check out LCV’s Recent Votes page here.  

(Cover photo found on Flickr and taken by Richard Masoner)

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