OPED: Proposed state bill could halt clean-air progress

Deborah P. Brown
Guest Column

Too many Pennsylvanians are breathing unhealthy air. For the nearly 1 million Pennsylvanians who suffer from asthma, air pollution is a serious health threat.

A Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site is seen near Burlington, Pa., in Bradford County, in this 2010 file photo.

Since natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania has ramped up in recent years, so too have concerns about the impact of drilling emissions on local air quality. Oil and gas activity releases massive amounts of pollution into the air that can deteriorate local air quality and exacerbate asthma symptoms. Pollution from oil and gas creates smog and drives climate change.The problem has become so severe that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently adopted emissions limits for new oil and gas facilities that come online.

This is a significant victory for clean air. But it does not address the existing oil and gas facilities. Nearly 1.5 million Pennsylvanians live near an existing oil or gas facility and these Pennsylvanians deserve protections from oil and gas pollution.

The good news is the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said it would close this loophole and put in place state-level protections aimed at reducing the hundreds of thousands of tons of air pollution from the state’s oil and gas industry. Common sense steps taken to curb methane pollution, like requiring drillers to regularly find and fix the leaky equipment, will also reduce volatile organic compounds from oil and gas operations, including carcinogens such as benzene, toluene and formaldehyde, which are hazardous toxic gases that react easily with other gases and particles to threaten health.

But a new bill currently under consideration in the Pennsylvania legislature, SB 1327, could halt this progress. The bill restricts Pennsylvania from taking any action on this pollution beyond the U.S. EPA standards — even if state actions could help save lives.

This cannot be tolerated.

SB 1327 blocks important health and environmental progress from being made, but it also sets a dangerous precedent. Federal measures should be the minimum protection, not the maximum. Pennsylvania should not cede its right and obligation to protect its citizens from environmental threats because the U.S. EPA has not acted or has not taken all the necessary steps to address pollution in Pennsylvania.  But that is exactly what SB 1327 does. It limits our Department of Environmental Protection from setting commonsense standards to protect our communities from air pollution.

It’s the job of our policy makers to develop solutions to public health threats in our communities — especially when those threats can trigger asthma attacks and even cancer.  But instead of being a part of the solution, some in the legislature want block our DEP from establishing reasonable standards to protect our air quality and our health.

Pennsylvanians deserve better. We urge the legislators to vote no on SB 1327 and on any bill that unnecessarily threatens the health of Pennsylvania families.

— Deborah P. Brown is president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic region.