Washington, DC — Under pressure from the oil and gas industry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is weakening air pollution limits for production and exploration operations on Alaska’s North Slope, according to agency records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result of these rule changes, North Slope oil operations will be emitting as much nitrogen oxides (NOx) as the entire Washington, DC metropolitan area.
Both the state of Alaska and EPA have reversed earlier positions that would prevent tons of additional hydrocarbons from being emitted by massive oil facilities based at Prudhoe Bay. On behalf of a former Alaska state environmental engineer, Bill MacClarence, who raised these issues both internally and externally, PEER is petitioning EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt to intervene.
At immediate issue is a permit for new facilities at a massive British Petroleum, Inc. complex. Contrary to EPA guidance, this new facility is classified as stand alone operations and not included (or “aggregated”) into its existing permit. By illegally subdividing its operations, the company can evade air pollution emission limits on existing permits and put many thousand of tons of additional hydrocarbons and other toxic air pollutants into the atmosphere.
“This case is a golden opportunity for Mr. Leavitt to match his rhetoric with action,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch who filed the petition seeking a veto of the BP permit. “The pollution stakes of this action are enormous and the benefits will be realized if EPA merely enforces its own rules.”
Elevated levels of nitrogen oxides represent a serious health problem for workers and native communities in the region. In the arctic, air pollution is much more significant than in temperate zones because the arctic region is subject to extreme atmospheric inversions, which results in the pollution being trapped in a mixing layer of only a few feet above the surface. For example, this mixing layer is 1000 feet in Los Angeles, 100 feet in Anchorage and only 10 feet in Fairbanks. Thus, the health impact is much more substantial at the North Slope for comparatively much lower levels of pollution.
Besides NOx, other pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide emissions, are increasing and will continue to increase as the oil fields are beginning to age. The North Slope currently produces as much as a fifth of the nation’s oil supply, thus the volume of pollution released is immense.
MacClarence, a 20-year environmental engineer, persuaded the State of Alaska to require aggregation in the BP permit, but under intense lobbying from the Alaska Oil & Gas Association, the state reversed its stand in July 2003. Initially, EPA raised concerns but by October of that year, EPA signaled that it would not count pollution from new BP units towards previous permit limits.
If Administrator Leavitt does not act on the PEER petition, the next step would be a citizen suit on MacClarence’s behalf under the Clean Air Act