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New Air Pollution Rules for Offshore Oil Rigs Proposed

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Times Staff Writer

In a final attempt to influence the debate on one of the most contentious environmental issues of the last eight years, the Reagan Administration Tuesday proposed new rules to govern air pollution caused by offshore oil drilling.

Interior Department officials, explaining the plan to reporters, insisted that their proposal, issued only three days before the Reagan Administration ends and Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel leaves office, would “better protect California air quality,” but environmentalists denounced the proposal as shot through with loopholes. Oil industry officials said that they could not comment on the proposals until they review them further.

Under the proposal, air pollution from oil platforms and drilling ships in federal waters--3 miles or more offshore--would be regulated more strictly than under current rules. But the platforms would still be allowed to cause substantially more air pollution than offshore oil wells inside the 3-mile limit, or those on land, all of which are regulated by the state.

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The amount of pollution involved is not insignificant. A single drilling ship used in oil exploration, environmentalists estimate, emits as much pollution as 25,000 cars.

“It’s like a 1-mile strip of offshore freeway,” said Mark Abramowitz of the Coalition for Clean Air. The new proposed rule, he said, “is an eleventh-hour attempt by them to slide something through.”

In the wake of the new proposal, members of the California congressional delegation said Tuesday that they will press ahead with legislation that would make the Environmental Protection Agency, and not the Interior Department, the regulator of offshore air pollution.

“The Interior Department is the promoter of offshore drilling and the regulator as well, and that’s an inherent conflict of interest,” said Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), who has been the chief sponsor of the legislation in the House. A spokesman said that Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, who is out of the country, intends to push a similar proposal in the Senate.

The fight involves one of the longest-running environmental quarrels of the Reagan years--the regulation of oil drilling off the California coast. For eight years, state and local officials and environmental groups have largely blocked Administration efforts to greatly accelerate the pace of offshore drilling. During last fall’s presidential campaign, George Bush wooed California votes by pledging to go slow on further California offshore development.

While most of the attention during the debate has focused on the specter of oil spills fouling beaches and damaging marine life, air pollution from offshore platforms has been a consistent worry of California environmental officials.

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For example, officials at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates air pollutants in the Los Angeles Basin, estimate that by early in the next century, emissions from offshore drilling platforms each day could put into the air as much as 14 tons of the gases that help form ozone smog over Los Angeles, Orange County and neighboring areas.

Early in the Reagan Administration, California officials, joined by environmental groups, sued then-Interior Secretary James Watt to force more stringent regulation of emissions from offshore platforms. Although the EPA has jurisdiction over air pollution everywhere else in the country, Interior controls emissions from the platforms as part of its overall regulation of the offshore oil industry.

After several years of gridlock on the issue, the oil industry and Administration representatives agreed to a series of “regulatory negotiation” sessions with representatives of California and environmental groups. After 2 1/2 years of discussions, however, the negotiations broke down last month, and Interior officials announced that they would issue a new proposal without a consensus from the negotiating group.

The new proposal must still go through a public comment period, after which it might be substantially altered before the new Administration makes a final decision on whether to give it the force of law.

The issues involved in the controversy are all highly technical, but fall into three major categories--how much pollution each platform should be allowed to emit; how strictly the government should regulate other activities related to drilling, such as the boats that service drilling platforms, and what steps should be taken to reduce the pollution that the platforms have to emit in order to function.

Under current rules, for example, platforms located more than 3 miles offshore, such as those in the Santa Barbara Channel and off Long Beach, are allowed to emit up to 100 tons per year of hydrocarbon fumes and nitrogen oxides. The two types of gases together combine in the atmosphere to form ozone, the principal component of Los Angeles smog and the most difficult to control.

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Under the new proposal, those emissions would be limited to 46 tons per year. Existing platforms would have three years to adopt new control technologies to get down to that limit. New platforms would have to be built to meet that standard.

That change should “go a long way toward protecting onshore air quality,” said Michael A. Poling, the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management.

But environmentalists and air quality management officials counter that the new limit is more than twice as high as what would be allowed under state rules. Because the state governs any drilling closer to the shore than 3 miles, “you don’t have the kind of protectiveness you would have just because you’ve moved over a foot” to cross the 3-mile limit, said Abramowitz, who called the new proposals “useless” and “fake.”

If an oil company’s drilling platform emitted more pollution than allowed, Interior’s rules would require the company to find “offsets” on land to reduce the overall pollution level. Offsets could include steps as varied as paying to reduce pollution levels at someone else’s onshore factory or finding ways to reduce automobile traffic that generates pollutants.

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