Lawmakers Battle to Create Gulf Environmental Rules

Article excerpt

By Bill Mintz

Houston Chronicle

WASHINGTON _ State and federal officials say they just want to find the best way to coordinate the environmental programs for the Gulf of Mexico.

But the oil and gas industry is now trying desperately to keep that genie corked in its bottle.

The force that worries them is a bill that is headed for the Senate floor that they fear will give the Environmental Protection Agency more authority to regulate drilling activity in the Gulf.

The industry fears that a well-intentioned effort to address Gulf environmental issues may be hijacked by environmentalists who don't share their concern about the jobs and investment represented by oil and gas production.

They point to the experience of industries that are struggling with new regulations imposed by the EPA in the Great Lakes. And energy industry leaders fear a new layer of regulation in the Gulf, which is one of the few places where their rigs and production platforms are still welcome.

An EPA water program official who asked not to be named insisted the goal of the program is not to impose a new regulatory structure. But he also said a Gulf environmental program is not the place to establish economic development goals.

The issue has become tangled in a knot of political infighting involving several members of the Texas congressional delegation and Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro. He is using his ties to the Clinton administration to try to push his version of the bill.

Each of the competing Texans claims to have the best way to protect the Gulf without endangering the oil and gas drilling program, which provides royalty income for both the federal government and the Gulf states. They also portray competing proposals as a threat to the energy industry.

Legislative efforts to unify Gulf management programs have been introduced by Gulf Coast lawmakers ranging across the philosophical spectrum.

What provoked the industry reaction is a section of the Senate bill reauthorizing federal clean water programs that also establishes a Gulf program.

The EPA established a Gulf program during the Bush administration, but its scope is limited because it lacks the statutory authority to follow through on its recommendations.

The clean water bill has been approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. It is scheduled to be debated in June.

The Senate bill designates the EPA as the "lead agency" in Gulf matters. It creates a commission to coordinate state and federal programs and develop a "Gulf of Mexico Management and Restoration Plan."

Brian Petty, senior vice president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, said the language of the bill does not spell out a threat, but the industry fears that it could lead to EPA management of the offshore drilling program in the future. …