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Regan Nelson’s Blog

Congress to Consider Big Oil's Demand to Allow More Air Pollution from Offshore Drilling

Regan Nelson

Posted June 20, 2011

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It’s bad enough that Big Oil companies want to drill below the fragile and remote Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska. But now they’re also demanding exemptions from the Clean Air Act so their offshore drilling operations can spew more toxic pollution into the air above them.

Congress this week is set to consider H.R. 2021, the misleadingly named “Jobs and Energy Permitting Act of 2011” that would allow Shell  and other oil companies to exempt parts of their massive offshore drilling operations and support vessels such as icebreaker ships from the Clean Air Act requirements designed to protect our health and our environment.

Allowing the bill to pass would not only put one of our nation’s few remaining pristine areas at risk, but also would set precedent for similar offshore drilling operations that — if lawmakers like Representative Doc Hastings (R-WA) get their way — could begin off our beaches in the Atlantic and the Pacific.

This bill is not about whether oil drilling should be allowed to occur.  This is about whether air pollution from drilling operations needs to be limited, just as we limit air pollution from any other source.  Congress shouldn’t be weakening the Clean Air Act by pretending that pollution from some places and some activities doesn’t exist.

Just how much toxic stuff do these offshore operations spew into the air?  According to Shell’s drilling permit, here’s what their Arctic proposed exploration drilling operation would release in a single year:

  • As much dirty particulate matter as 825,000 cars crossing the continental United States four times.
  • As much carbon dioxide as emitted from the households of 21,000 people.
  • More than 1,000 tons of NO2 and 57 tons of fine particulates (soot) — both toxic pollutants linked to respiratory illness and even death.

Off the coast of Alaska, these toxins would float down to the water, harming not just rig workers, but also sea life and native Alaskan subsistence hunters who depend on the ocean and its bounty. 

Adding insult to injury for Alaskans, the bill also would eliminate the ability of local communities to seek review of drilling permits by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Appeals Board. The impartial Environmental Appeals Board lets citizens voice their concerns about oil drilling permits via telephone or video conference and without representation by a lawyer or travel to Washington D.C. Taking that away from the remote communities of Alaska effectively silences their voices, leaving only those of Big Oil lobbyists and attorneys.

If you think H.R. 2021 is limited only to what’s happening in Alaska and won’t affect you, think again.

The bill would apply to all Outer Continental Shelf drilling (with the exception of the Gulf of Mexico, where oil companies already enjoy more lax clean air requirements). With Big Oil and some in the current Congress intent on opening up every inch of our coastlines to drilling, that would allow oil companies to someday spew ever more pollution into the air off the coasts of Virginia or Florida or California, for example.

And if that happens, they’ll be no escaping the dangers of drilling-related air pollution for any of us.

Congress should be working to make offshore drilling safer and cleaner, not carving out special deals for the oil industry and excluding the public from decisions that could jeopardize our health.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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