Washington, DC — In a major victory for the oil industry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has adopted looser air pollution limits for sprawling petroleum production and exploration operations, according to an agency order released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, petroleum facilities will be allowed to emit additional tons of hydrocarbons each day.
At issue is a regulatory rule called “aggregation” which prevents polluters from avoiding air pollution permit limits by breaking their operations down into smaller units, each with its own pollution cap
In an order signed April 20, 2007, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson rejected a petition filed by PEER and a former Alaska state environmental engineer, Bill MacClarence, demanding that EPA veto a permit issued by the state of Alaska in 2003 for facilities at a massive British Petroleum complex on the North Slope. Contrary to previous EPA guidance, this new facility was classified as a stand-alone operation and not included within or aggregated into its existing permit.
“The North Slope currently produces as much as a fifth of the nation’s oil supply, so the volume of pollution released is immense,” stated Bill MacClarence, who had protested the permit both when he served as the supervisor of its air permit program for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and after he retired. “North Slope oil operations are already emitting as much nitrogen oxides as the entire Washington, DC metropolitan area and it is going to get a lot worse.”
In an action that presaged its decision on the PEER petition, on January 12, 2007, EPA issued new national guidance that forbade applying aggregation principles to reduce pollution at oil facilities that are physically separated even though operationally linked. Oil and gas developments typically consist of many pieces of equipment, sometimes thousands in big developments, often connected by pipelines. This new guidance means that oil companies can treat equipment clusters as separate facilities, each with its own pollution allowances. The guidance directive was signed by William Wehrum, whose nomination to be EPA Assistant Administrator for Air was recently withdrawn by President Bush.
“Besides the negative public health effects, the last best places in our country will soon become as smog-choked as our big cities,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the rapid proliferation of oil and gas drilling in the Rocky Mountains and offshore. “This case was also a golden opportunity for the Bush administration to take its first baby steps to stop venting gases that contribute to global warming.”
MacClarence, a 20-year environmental engineer, had 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 echoed those concerns but eventually also reversed its position. In the order, EPA Administrator Johnson denied that his agency “altered its position on aggregation …because of aggressive lobbying by the Alaska oil and gas industry…” but admitted that “EPA did meet with the applicant, at the applicant’s request, on two occasions to discuss aggregation…”