Environmental Safety Poses Tough Problems for Energy Industry

Article excerpt

Now, I consider myself an environmentalist.

Trees, birds, fish, clean air and water all appeal to me. I remember the Iron Eyes Cody television spots and have tried to grow up to be a responsible adult to my environment.

Recycling garbage doesn't bother me, and I wouldn't mind paying a reasonable increase for reformulated gasoline or gas-fired electricity generation. I would even buy a natural gas-powered car. But, I want to continue to drive a car, crank up the natural gas when it gets chilly and flip a switch when night falls.

For the past year, however, there has been renewed fervor in the environmental campaign against oil companies. In three weeks, it will be the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. It has sparked debate about the transport of oil in domestic ports and regulatory scrutiny.

This has precipitated huge writedowns for oil companies and large public relations budgets from the industry to show its safety qualities.

In Oklahoma, Phillips Petroleum Co. of Bartlesville had a deadly explosion at its Houston Chemical Complex in October that killed 23 people. And, Kerr-McGee Corp. of Oklahoma City has a contaminated refinery and nuclear plant in Cushing that may be put on the Superfund list.

Still, like Mike Coldren, executive director of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, said a while back in an interview, "We've come a long way, baby," in pollution prevention in the oilpatch. And, Oklahoma oil and gas regulations were on the cutting edge of forming national policies.

Coldren along with many others believe the environmental regulations coming down the pike in the 1990s will force a majority of the small independent companies out of business. It is a complex and costly endeavor to meet all the requirements.

Phillips' explosion may bring on new regulations for the industry as well.

In a couple of weeks, a federal report on the Phillips explosion is expected. Another is due toward the end of April, followed by another congressional hearing.

Following the accident, Phillips' executives told members of the House Employment and Housing Subcommittee the incident was tragic and devastating, but said they felt proper safety measures were installed and followed.

Members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union, however, told the subcommittee on Nov. 6 that Phillips' chemical complex was a "disaster waiting to happen."

An Environmental Protection Agency report on the incident is expected to be finalized in a couple of weeks, said EPA inspector Jim Staves, who conducted the investigation and prepared the report.

By the end of April, the federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration report is due, said OSHA investigator Tom Littrell, who is conducting the investigation. OSHA was given a six-month limit to prepare its report from Oct. 23, the date of the incident.

Neither Staves nor Littrell would reveal preliminary findings, but both reports will be given to the subcommittee in late April for consideration of possible penalties, said subcommittee staff member Joyce Simonson.

The range of possible penalties is not known, nor how much the incident has cost Phillips in medical claims and rebuilding the plant plus lost business.

Meanwhile, Phillips, based in Bartlesville, has just released a 20-page color booklet outlining a broad scope of measures the company takes to protect the environment.

Phillips began its own internal environmental management team back in 1961 and for two years prior to the Houston explosion was cited as the safest oil company by federal and industry organizations. …