The Bush administration has decided to give the oil and gas industry two years to comply with a storm-water regulation that goes into effect across the country Monday, and will consider granting a permanent exemption.
Environmental groups and environmentalists in Congress argued that the administration is granting special rights to a favored industry, at the risk of polluting rivers and lakes.
The administration said it needs additional time to determine the effect the rule would have on the industry and whether it should be applied to companies producing and exploring for oil and gas.
The rule orders builders and others whose construction projects cover from one to five acres to get permission from state or federal officials before beginning work. It also requires municipalities with populations of less than 100,000 to seek permits for urban runoff from streets and parking lots.
It was written in 1999, but its effective date was delayed for four years.
The regulation is the second phase of an effort intended to reduce by 80% sediment and other polluted runoff from cities, towns and construction projects. Existing rules under the Clean Water Act cover construction areas greater than 5 acres and communities with populations greater than 100,000.
Environmental Protection Agency officials said they were delaying the oil and gas industry's compliance because they had mistakenly believed that most oil and gas construction projects would not impact more than one acre.
The industry, however, said most of the 30,000 sites drilled annually fall within the range of one to five acres.
Seeking to be excluded from the rule, the oil and gas industry argued that drilling sites do not create large runoff problems and that complying would be too expensive. Industry representatives also argued that the Clean Water Act bans the EPA administrator from requiring the industry to get storm-water permits for a variety of activities, including production, exploration and processing.
"We think these storm-water discharges are exempted from the permitting requirements of the Clean Water Act," said Lee Fuller, a vice president of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America.
EPA spokesman John Millet said the provision does not apply to the industry's construction projects, but agency officials would determine whether it should in the next two years.
Environmental groups and sympathetic legislators argued that the oil and gas industry's construction projects should be regulated like all other construction projects.
"While small communities and small construction projects in every other sector of the economy must comply with strong storm-water standards, the Bush administration is giving a free ride to the oil and gas industry," said Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), who was the chairman of the Environment Committee before Republicans gained control of the Senate. "With this proposal, we are seeing our nation's water quality standards go down the drain."
But EPA officials said the industry made a strong case.
"EPA agrees that sediment from all sources is a concern but believes that the oil and gas industry has raised significant questions about the differences between the nature of construction at oil and gas sites and other construction," EPA officials said in the formal notification of their decision.
It will be published in the Federal Register on Monday.
Millet said EPA officials needed the extra time because they had conflicting information about environmental damage from the oil and gas industry's construction projects and the potential economic damage to the industry.
Environmental groups said water quality would suffer if the industry is given a two-year delay.
"Everybody admits there is pollution coming from these sites," said Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They're being excused from the process that requires them to address that."