BOEM proposes new rules for air pollution from offshore oil operations

The agency that manages oil and gas leasing in federal waters has issued a set of proposed air quality regulations updating rules that have not changed in decades.

The proposed regulations issued Thursday by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management cover air quality regulation for offshore oil and gas operators in the Gulf of Mexico and, thanks to a change made by Congress in its 2012 budget, in the offshore Arctic.

The proposed regulations target emissions of volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide, carbon monoxide and particulates

They seek to update standards for measuring emissions and make BOEM's air quality regulations consistent with the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of air pollution, an agency statement said.

"This proposal takes a balanced approach to modernize BOEM's regulations and ensure compliance with today's air quality standards," Janice Schneider, the Department of Interior assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said in the statement. "These proposed improvements will minimize harm to human health and the environment from oil and gas activities."

The proposed regulations update air quality rules that had been in place since 1980, but had been applicable for most of those years only to operators in the Gulf of Mexico.

Prior to 2012, air emissions in the Arctic offshore had been regulated by EPA, which issued Clean Air Act permits to operators. But a legislative rider pushed through by Sen. Lisa Murkowski – who was critical of EPA and its permitting process – transferred that air quality management to BOEM.

That transfer was "one of the most important steps Congress can take to ensure that responsible development is allowed to go forward in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas," Murkowski said in a December 2011 statement. She argued that BOEM should be in charge of air permitting in Alaska, as it and its predecessor agency, the Minerals Management Service, have long been for the Gulf of Mexico. Shifting permitting to BOEM would put Arctic Alaska waters on a "level playing field" with the Gulf of Mexico and would be accomplished "without compromising environmental protections," Murkowski said in her statement.

With BOEM in charge of air emissions regulation, requirements for controlling air pollution from offshore Arctic oil and gas operations are embedded in plan approvals rather than spelled out in separate permits.

The changes proposed by BOEM would tighten air quality management in some ways.

They would ensure that air emissions are regulated even when sources are moving, and along the entire routes of their voyages. In the past, when EPA was responsible for air quality permits, there was debate about whether air emissions could be regulated when drill rigs were not anchored and completely stationary. Ultimately, under the permits issued by EPA to Shell for offshore operations in the Chukchi and Beaufort in 2012, regulations were applicable only when the drill ships were stationary.

The proposed regulations also clarify that they apply to all sources associated with any given oil or gas project, meaning support vessels within 25 miles of a drilling operation are covered. Operators will be required to demonstrate air will be sufficiently clean to meet federal standards at the marine border of federal and state territories, usually 3 miles from shore; the current regulations require such a demonstration at the point of shoreline but not necessarily farther out to sea.

Additionally, the proposed regulations would require more detailed monitoring of short-term and longer-term impacts and would integrate newer technology and standards for emissions limits, according to BOEM.

The regulation changes have been in the works for years. A 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office said they will "reflect changes in pollution standards, modeling, and technology," and the existing regulations had not been substantially updated since 1988.

The proposed regulations are subject to a 60-day public comment period, BOEM said.

Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen was a reporter for Alaska Dispatch News.