Oil drillers get reprieve from runoff rule

Environmentalists protest 2-year delay in complying

March 09, 2003|By Elizabeth Shogren | Elizabeth Shogren,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration will give the oil and gas industry two years to comply with a storm water regulation that goes into effect tomorrow, and it will consider granting the industry a permanent exemption.

Environmental groups and environmentalists in Congress criticized this as granting special rights to a favored industry, at the risk of polluting the nation's rivers and lakes.

The administration said it needs more time to determine the impact the rule would have on the industry and whether it should be applied to production and exploration for oil and gas.

The rule orders builders and others whose construction projects cover anywhere from 1 acre to 5 acres to get the permission of state or federal officials before beginning the work. It also requires municipalities with populations of less than 100,000 to seek permits for urban runoff from streets and parking lots.

The regulation is the second phase of an effort to reduce by 80 percent 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 affect more than an acre.

The industry said most of the 30,000 sites drilled annually fall in the 1-to-5-acre range.

Fighting to be excluded from the rule, the oil and gas industry argued that drilling sites do not create much runoff and that complying would be too costly.

"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 Association of America.

EPA spokesman John Millet said the provision does not apply to the industry's construction projects, but agency officials would determine during the next two years whether it should apply.

Environmental groups and pro-environment 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, a Vermont independent who was the chairman of the Senate Environment Committee before Republicans gained the majority in the Senate this year.

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 tomorrow.

Compared with road or home building, construction at drilling sites generally lasts a short time. Drilling generally takes place on leased land and with leased drilling rigs. Operators fear that if they must get permits, they could end up paying for expensive leases for rigs while waiting for approval.

Elizabeth Shogren writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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