The federal government has proposed a new regulation that would require many oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel to install cleaner-burning generators in order to reduce air pollution.
But officials in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and environmental groups say the regulation does not go far enough toward improving onshore air pollution problems, and they may sue if the regulation is approved by the Department of the Interior.
Ventura County officials, along with their Santa Barbara counterparts and environmental groups, have fought for years to make offshore oil-drilling operations subject to the same clean air regulations as onshore industries. It has been an uphill battle because county officials have no direct control over offshore emissions, which are regulated by the Minerals Management Service, a division of the Department of the Interior.
That may change, however. The brewing debate in Congress over the Clean Air Act may mean that jurisdiction over offshore emissions will be transfered from the Interior Department to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which may be more sympathetic to the county's position.
In a Bind
Local officials have long complained that conflicting federal requirements put them in a bind. On one hand, the EPA requires them to count offshore emissions as part of the Ventura County air pollution problem. But on the other hand, because of the Interior Department's jurisdiction, the county has little control over the offshore sources of pollution. The result, officials say, is likely to be ever-tighter pollution controls onshore to make up for the offshore emissions.
"When we're sitting here imposing controls that have the effect of reducing emissions one-tenth of one ton per day and they're out there putting out tons per day, they're hurting the gains we're making," said Richard Baldwin, executive officer of the county Air Pollution Control District. However, the oil industry disputes the claim that offshore pollution significantly affects onshore air quality.
Offshore oil drilling creates air pollution mostly from the large power generators used to run drilling rigs and pumps. Though similar engines are subject to strict regulations onshore, the Minerals Management Service did not regulate offshore air pollution until 1980. Since then, the agency has required pollution-control measures on offshore platforms around the country if computer air-quality models show that offshore emissions contribute to onshore air pollution problems. These measures have included clean-burning gas turbines, sulfur recovery units and waste-heat recovery systems, which reduce the size of generators needed on the platforms.
Since 1982, the state and environmentalists have been engaged in litigation with the Interior Department to force a separate set of tougher offshore air pollution standards for California. As part of this litigation, officials from local, state and federal agencies, along with oil company representatives and environmentalists, engaged in secret negotiations for more than two years. However, the negotiations broke down in late 1988.
Then in January, the Interior Department issued a proposed new regulation for California offshore pollution. Under the proposal, offshore platforms emitting air pollutants above a certain level would have to install pollution control technologies in all circumstances, no matter what the computer modeling indicated.
Oil industry officials say the rule would go too far. "It would be very difficult to live with," said Donna Black, an attorney for the Western States Petroleum Assn. However, she added, "I wouldn't go so far as to say that, under this proposed rule, nobody would be able to do anything."
But the new regulation is not as strict as present onshore regulations. For example, offshore facilities must install equipment to reduce emissions of so-called "ozone precursors"--gases that help create smog--only if they produce more than 46 tons per year, while Ventura County's present threshold for onshore facilities is 25 tons per year. Ozone smog is Ventura County's major air pollution problem, and regulation of ozone precursors is the major technique used to reduce local pollution both onshore and offshore.
"At a minimum, the regulation should control offshore areas the same way onshore areas are controlled," said Mark Abramowitz, director of the Santa Monica-based Coalition for Clean Air, who led environmentalists in the negotiation effort.
Area of Jurisdiction
The proposed regulation specifically steers clear of the pollution emissions created by crew and supply boats that serve the rigs, which a recent study has identified as part of the problem. "We don't feel we have the jurisdiction to regulate crew and supply boats while they're in transit," said Mitchell Baer, a Minerals Management meteorologist who wrote the proposed regulation.
So far, Minerals Management has received a stack of comments on the proposed regulation at least 10 feet high. Baldwin said that if the final rule is similar to the proposal, he will probably recommend that the county sue to make it tougher. The Interior Department has no timetable for issuing a final regulation.