WASHINGTON, DC, February 10, 2004 (ENS) - A watchdog group released records from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday that reveal the agency is weakening air pollution limits for British Petroleum oil and gas production and exploration operations on Alaska's North Slope. In addition to releasing the documents, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is petitioning EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt to intervene in the matter.
PEER filed its petition on behalf of a former Alaska state environmental engineer, Bill MacClarence, who raised these issues both internally and externally.
Both the state of Alaska and the EPA have reversed earlier positions that would have prevented tons of additional hydrocarbons from being emitted by massive oil facilities based at Prudhoe Bay.
At immediate issue is a permit for new facilities at a massive British Petroleum (BP) complex. The new facilities have been classified as a standalone operation and not included, or aggregated, into BP's existing permit.
MacClarence, a 20 year environmental engineer, persuaded the state of Alaska to require aggregation in the BP permit, but the oil and gas industry complained, and the state reversed its stand in July 2003.
The EPA raised concerns about the move, but by October of last year had signaled that it would not count pollution from new BP units towards previous permit limits.
"This case is a golden opportunity for Mr. Leavitt to match his rhetoric with action," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch who filed the petition seeking a veto of the BP permit. "The pollution stakes of this action are enormous and the benefits will be realized if EPA merely enforces its own rules."
PEER says the EPA and Alaskan state officials are allowing the facility to illegally subdivide its operations, a move that enables it to avoid air pollution emission limits on existing permits and put many thousand of tons of additional hydrocarbons and other toxic air pollutants into the atmosphere.
As a result of these rule changes, North Slope oil operations will be emitting as much nitrogen oxides (NOx) as the entire Washington, DC metropolitan area.
Elevated levels of NOx represent a serious health problem for workers and native communities in the region. In the Arctic, air pollution is much more significant than in temperate zones because the Arctic region is subject to extreme atmospheric inversions, which results in the pollution being trapped in a mixing layer only a few feet above the surface.
In addition to NOx, other pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide emissions, are increasing and will continue to increase as the oil fields age.
PEER says if Leavitt does not act on the petition, the next step would be a citizen lawsuit on MacClarence's behalf under the Clean Air Act.