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Offshore Oil, NatGas Activities Need Updated Air Quality Oversight, BOEM Says

The Obama administration on Thursday proposed updating 36-year-old air quality regulations that govern offshore oil and natural gas activity to more accurately measure emissions.

The proposal would ensure that activities in the offshore don’t significantly harm the air quality of any state, said the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).

The updates are intended to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.

“This proposal takes a balanced approach to modernize BOEM’s regulations and ensure compliance with today’s air quality standards,” said Assistant Secretary of Interior Janice Schneider. “These proposed improvements will minimize harm to human health and the environment from oil and gas activities.”

BOEM regulates air emissions from oil and gas activity on areas of the OCS as a part of its review of exploration and development plans, as well as rights-of-use and rights-of-way applications in federal waters of the Western and Central Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates air emissions on the remaining OCS as part of its permitting process under the Clean Air Act.

Under the BOEM proposal, requirements would be strengthened “for identifying, modeling, measuring and tracking the emissions of air pollutants, while retaining key aspects of the current plan approval process for offshore oil and gas exploration and development activity.”

The improvements, regulators said, “will better ensure BOEM approves plans that do not significantly affect the air quality of any state, giving coastal communities and stakeholders greater confidence regarding expected air quality impacts from OCS activity.”

The changes also are expected to give its sister agency, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, “better tools” to assess air quality compliance for OCS operations.

“Informed by our longstanding relationship with operators, this proposal incorporates key aspects of today’s practices into our regulations, while also bringing our regulations up to speed with the best available science,” said BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper.

A public comment period is scheduled. BOEM plans to conduct “rigorous stakeholder engagement before finalizing the regulations,” she said.

Proposed updates would include addressing “all relevant criteria and major precursor air pollutants and cross-referencing the standards for those pollutants to those of the EPA to ensure that operators use the most current standards in submitting plans for BOEM’s review of the potential air quality impacts of offshore exploration and development plans.”

Another improvement planned would help identify the state boundaries to determine potential air quality impacts.

“The air quality program would measure these impacts landward from the state-seaward boundary, usually three nautical miles offshore, as opposed to only at the coastline,” BOEM said. “This proposed change would more accurately reflect impacts to the states by including impacts to all lands, including submerged lands, under state jurisdiction.”

The proposed rule also would formalize requirements to consolidate emissions from multiple facilities that are wholly/partially owned or controlled by the same operator and intended to be part of one unit or project.

“Specifically, the proposed rule would require a lessee or operator to add together emissions generated by proximate activities within one nautical mile from multiple facilities, whether or not they are described in a single plan,” regulators said. “The aggregated emissions from those facilities would then be combined for analysis.”

The proposed rule is expected to result in more accurate calculations of emissions from support vessels because their use has increased as activities move farther offshore.

“Rather than limiting consideration of emissions from supply vessels to within 25 miles of a facility, as BOEM’s current regulations do, the proposed rule recognizes the long distance covered by such vessels as development is extended in deepwater areas and the Arctic and appropriately accounts for emissions during a vessel’s entire transit.

“Additionally, improvements since 1980 facilitate more accurate modeling of ship emissions where they actually occur. These improvements have been incorporated into the proposal.”

As well, the proposed rule sets up a schedule to ensure that plans, including previously approved plans, would be compliant with the updated regulations.

“With the proposed changes to the regulations, BOEM will have one set of requirements, appropriate to both regions where BOEM has authority, which will be more effective and increase predictability. The proposed regulatory changes will also provide BOEM and affected states improved information on the expected onshore air quality impacts of OCS exploration and development.”

BOEM’s proposed revisions have “the potential to significantly increase the cost of doing business on the OCS and may forestall further development of oil and gas resources in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico and the Alaska Arctic,” said Van Ness Feldman LLP.

“With the proposed rule, BOEM drastically broadens the scope of air emissions that an operator must measure, monitor, and control,” the law firm said in a note Friday. “Ultimately, BOEM’s proposed changes could result in the agency disapproving an operator’s Exploration Plan, Development and Production Plan, or Development Operations Coordination Document that otherwise would have been approved under the existing regulatory scheme.”

In response to the BOEM proposal, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the regulations “will impose additional costs in return for dubious benefits at a time when domestic operators are locked in ferocious competition with the likes of Iran and Russia.

“The administration is trying to earn plaudits for including the Arctic offshore in its proposed leasing plan, but at the same time is proposing regulations that would make Arctic development all the more difficult. This smoke-and-mirrors approach jeopardizes the energy security of our nation.”

However, Earthjustice’s Erika Rosenthal said the environmental group applauded the administration’s efforts to update its “woefully outdated air pollution standards for offshore drilling...The current standards exempt almost all offshore drilling activity from controls on emitting dangerous climate-warming air pollution that harms public health. Strong action to rein in this pollution is critical to protecting the air we breathe air and reducing the climate forcing pollution caused by ongoing offshore drilling.”

The public comment period is to last 60 days once it is published in the Federal Register. To comment or to review comments, go towww.regulations.govand enter “AD82 -- Clean Air Reporting and Compliance” in the search field.

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