Regulators plan crackdown on oil polluters in Gulf of Mexico

Nov 05, 2007 01:00 AM

by Brett Clanton

State and federal regulators in Louisiana are preparing to crack down on oil industry pollution in the Gulf of Mexico under a new initiative that may herald a shift in the way environmental laws are enforced there and in other parts of the Gulf.
In the works for more than a year, the initiative will pool resources of 15 state and federal offices, including the Coast Guard, US Environmental Protection Agency and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, to ensure oil companies are properly disposing of wastes created during oil and natural gas drilling and production.

Under the program, training will begin soon for about 100 field officers, many of whom already patrol the Gulf for their respective agencies. The agents will learn how to identify oil and brine water spills and collect evidence that may be used to bring legal action against polluters.
Though the Louisiana initiative will focus only on those structures found in state waters -- or the first three milesoff the state's coast -- it could pave the way for future partnerships across state lines, including with Texas, organizers said. And the program certainly could have ramifications for Houston companies working in that part of the Gulf.

The effort comes after recent environmental cases against offshore oil companies and amid concerns that oil industry pollution may be contributing to erosion of Louisiana's coastal wetlands. But organizers say most oil companies follow the law, and the program is not a response to any noticeable rise in pollution or violations in the Gulf. Rather, the effort is designed to put violators on notice.
"When everyone knows the referee is watching, the game is played on a very level playing field," said Harold Leggett, assistant secretary for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality's office of environmental compliance, who helped craft the program.

Streamlining process
The initiative arrives as record oil prices are spurring more exploration in the Gulf, and it highlights a change in the way environmental violations are enforced there.
Leggett said a "hodgepodge" of programs monitor various types of environmental violations now, while the new effort establishes a clear framework for sharing information among state and federal agencies. That framework is outlined in a memorandum of understanding signed by state and federal offices participating in the program. It identifies the participants, and notes that they "recognize the value of working together to protect and preserve the Louisiana coastal areas."

Perhaps more significantly, the initiative represents an attempt to keep a closer eye on the day-to-day operations of the offshore oil industry, rather than waiting for a big oil spill or other accident.
"Historically, if something happens in the Gulf, it's like a tree falling in the woods," said Beau Brock, regional criminal enforcement counsel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 6, which also includes Texas. "If no one can find it and no one can see it, how can anyone do enforcement on it?" That should change with more trained agents in the Gulf and the shared use of technology such as infrared scanners, now employed on Coast Guard aircraft, that can detect oil spills from high above, he said.

The oil industry supports increased training for enforcement personnel in the Gulf, even though it already is under "extensive state and federal regulatory oversight," said Karen Matusic, spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group in Washington, DC.
"Our industry is committed to safe and sound operation and the protection of the environment and has issued numerous studies and guidance documents on sound environmental practices," she said. Industry observers and regulators agree the offshore oil industry has taken big steps in recent years to reduce its impact on the environment. In Louisiana, better compliance with laws has helped cut the number of oil spills in state waters from 4,000 in 1997 to half that today, said Buddy Goatcher, a contaminants specialist with US Fish and Wildlife Service in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Deep water, stretched thin
Organizers say the new initiative could lead to more administrative, civil or criminal cases against violators.
"I think we're going to see more enforcement actions brought," said David Dugas, US attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana in Baton Rouge, whose office is participating in the program, along with US attorneys' offices in New Orleans and Shreveport. But he said the main goals of the program are to "increase the likelihood that we'll detect these violations and then make sure there's a coordinated response once we detect the violations."

As of May, there were 1,723 structures producing oil or gas in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, according to the US Minerals Management Service. Yet there may be a limit to what state and federal agencies can achieve together, said Goatcher, with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Marshalling resources to keep watch on oil producers operating near the coast is one thing. But today, oil companies are drilling more than 200 miles offshore and in water depths approaching 10,000 feet. Out there, government agencies will be stretched thin, he said.
"With the deep water," Goatcher said, "we will have a whole new set of problems."

Source Houston Chronicle
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