After losing a battle in Congress to have the Environmental Protection Agency put in charge of monitoring air pollution from offshore oil platforms, Ventura County officials turned this week to a compromise plan placing regulatory powers in the hands of the U.S. Minerals Management Agency.
Ventura County's top air-pollution official expressed disappointment over the collapse of county efforts to put the EPA in charge of offshore platforms along the California coast. But he said he believes the compromise will also be a major step toward reducing air pollution.
"It is certainly much better than what we have now," said Richard Baldwin, the county's air-pollution control officer. "But this doesn't prevent the fox from guarding the henhouse."
Baldwin said the compromise plan being discussed this week in Washington will mean cleaner air for Ventura County if approved by both the Senate and the House.
It would be the first time that offshore oil platforms along the coast would be included in strict new federal regulations to control emissions that cause air pollution onshore, Baldwin said.
Baldwin and William Master, assistant director of the Santa Barbara Air Pollution Control District, initially worked with staff members for California Sens. Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson on the proposal that would have named the EPA as the regulatory agency. The EPA's authority would have extended to oil platforms in federal jurisdiction beyond the state's three-mile boundaries.
Under the original language in the provision, which makes up only a small part of the major Clean Air bill, the Minerals Management Agency would have retained its authority to issue permits to industry for offshore platforms. But the authority to write regulations and enforce them would have transferred to the EPA. The EPA would probably have delegated its enforcement authority to local air-pollution control districts, Master said.
Like the existing compromise provision, the original bill called for new regulations for offshore platforms to be at least as stringent as those regulating onshore sources of air-polluting emissions.
Baldwin and Master, along with other proponents of the tougher plan, argued that the EPA, which supervises all air-pollution control requirements onshore throughout the country, is the logical agency to regulate air pollution offshore, as well.
Opponents in the oil industry argued, however, that a change of agencies would disrupt the industry unnecessarily and that the Minerals Management Agency should regulate the oil platforms it currently licenses. The Western States Petroleum Assn. was one group lobbying against an EPA role during testimony before a Senate committee in January.
Mike Marcy, spokesman for Chevron Oil, said the oil industry is closely and competently supervised by the Minerals Management Agency, a division of the Interior Department.
"It's an established professional group," he said.
Although Master and Baldwin said they would have preferred an EPA role, they said this week that they believe supervision by the Minerals Management Agency can also help lower pollution in the county. Baldwin, however, noted that if the agency does not adopt strict enforcement controls, the county will take legal action.
"If the new regulations aren't as strict as they are for onshore, we'll go to court," Baldwin said.
Under the most recent compromise, the EPA would draft the regulations, which the Interior Department would then issue for oil platforms in federal waters beyond the three-mile limit.
Jeffrey Arnold, chief of congressional and legislative affairs for the Minerals Management Agency, called the proposed compromise "an extraordinary agreement."
"The relationship between the two agencies has changed from one of perceived antagonism to cooperation," he said. "We'll be working hand in glove."
The law would differ from current regulations in that the 19 platforms in federal waters off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are now exempt from any air-pollution control regulations in local onshore districts, Baldwin said.
Platforms within the state's three-mile zone are already under the jurisdiction of the local districts. Ventura County has no platforms in its state waters, but there are five producing platforms off the Santa Barbara County shore.
With the new rules calling for regulations on platforms in federal waters to be at least as strict as those onshore, air pollution being blown onshore by westerly winds from the ocean would be significantly reduced, Baldwin and Master said.
A single offshore platform each year can emit more than 500 tons of oxides of nitrogen and 100 tons of reactive hydrocarbons, primary constituents of smog, Master said. That is equal to what 32,000 cars each driving 10,000 miles would produce in a year, he said.
If the compromise survives a vote in the Senate expected late this week, as legislative aides to Cranston and Wilson predict, the bill and its offshore-platform provision would move to the House of Representatives.