Oil companies that drill in the Santa Barbara Channel will have to take additional steps to reduce the air pollution they generate under rules proposed by the regional director of the federal agency that governs most offshore drilling.
The proposals by J. Lisle Reed, Los Angeles-based director of the Pacific region of the Minerals Management Service, are seen as a crucial shift by the agency, which has long been criticized by environmentalists and air pollution officials for siding with oil companies.
"That is truly a dramatic turnaround and will make a huge difference in onshore air quality," said Jim Ryerson, director of the Barbara Air Pollution Control District. Richard Baldwin, Ventura Air Pollution Control District director, agreed, but said he won't celebrate until he sees actual enforcement of the proposals.
The platforms in the channel annually emit 4,782 tons of chemicals that contribute to smog--20% of the Santa Barbara South Coast's total pollution, according to air pollution officials there.
The extent to which Ventura County's air is fouled by offshore drilling is not clear. The four platforms off the Ventura coast contribute 2.5% of the county's pollution, according to a Minerals Management Service study, but prevailing winds buffet the county with additional emissions from up the coast. A more extensive study is under way.
'Take Extra Step'
The proposed practices represent "a considerable recognition of the locals' problems," said Reed, who has been in his post since March, 1988. "Now with a new President and a quest for a clean environment, it makes it easier for everyone to take that extra step."
Under Reed's plan, the Minerals Management Service will require companies building new offshore platforms to cut air pollution from their onshore operations by at least the amount generated off the coast. The local onshore operations consist of processing plants where water and impurities are removed from the oil and natural gas pumped ashore through pipelines from the platforms. Oil companies hope to have 10 new platforms in the channel by the year 2000.
Existing platforms will also need to meet stiffer requirements, although exactly how much they'll be required to reduce pollution has not yet been determined, Reed said. The federal agency enforces rules on 17 such platforms, all more than three miles from shore in what is called the Outer Continental Shelf.
To force oil companies to pollute less, local governments must now prove that emissions from federally governed offshore platforms have a significant impact on onshore air quality. Such proof comes from complex and time-consuming studies that can cost millions of dollars and could be challenged in court. The process has allowed Santa Barbara County to win substantial concessions from Exxon, Chevron and Unocal, but only after pitched battles.
Reed said he wants to take that burden off the backs of counties and local air pollution control districts.
'Going to Capitulate'
"We're going to capitulate on that rule," he said. "To reach agreement with counties and the state Air Resources Board, we'll have to mitigate almost all the emissions on a one-to-one basis."
Reed, a Ventura resident who supervises a region made up of California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, said he has the authority to impose his new policies in areas that have not met clean air standards imposed by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, such as Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. He said he will also ask his agency to start the bureaucratic machinery, including public hearings, that would transform his policies into government regulation.
"Even though our emissions only slightly impact onshore, they do impact," Reed said. 'We do feel an obligation that we can't be a part of the problem."
But at least one oil industry spokesman was doubtful that companies can do much more to cut pollution. Companies have already retrofitted older equipment, switched to cleaner fuels and taken other measures, said Shell's William Harper, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn.
Harper and other oil executives have suggested a system in which companies could pay for pollution-fighting measures such as switching public buses to methanol. In return, the companies would be allowed a certain level of emissions offshore.
"There's a lot of mutual interest to find a solution," Harper said.
Reed is not the first Minerals Management Service official to suggest a shift in the agency's thinking.
At a scientific conference in March, then-Minerals Management Service Director Robert Kallman said in his opening remarks that there is "no question" that offshore emissions impact onshore areas.
"Everybody just about fell over," Ryerson said. "Some of the oil industry people sprinted out of the room in horror to the phones. We didn't know if he misspoke or not, but he did say it."
Until then, "the MMS took a nationwide approach, saying oil platforms were too far offshore to have any significant effect," said Kathy Milway, technical manager for Santa Barbara's Air Pollution Control District.
In some areas, that may be true. In the Gulf of Mexico, many oil platforms are more than 100 miles off the coast. But most undersea oil and gas basins off Southern California are no more than 15 to 20 miles from shore.
Moreover, a study conducted for the Minerals Management Service last year pointed out that the weather patterns and topography of the Ventura-Santa Barbara coastline are particularly conducive to smog.
Mountains trap the emissions blown onshore, and temperature inversions keep the pollutants from dissipating into the air, the study said.