EPA Delays Decision on Clean Air Rule

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, August 15, 2001 (ENS) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman announced Tuesday that the agency will delay its decision on revisions to a controversial program to reduce air pollution from aging industrial facilities. Proposed revisions will now be included in a new comprehensive strategy to reduce air pollution and protect public health that will be released in September.

power plant

Aging power plants spew tons of air pollutants into the atmosphere each year (Two photos by Carole Swinehart, courtesy Michigan Sea Extension)
Whitman said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will incorporate its review of the New Source Review (NSR) program into this comprehensive strategy, and as a result, will not release its NSR report this week as originally planned. The administrator said she consulted with President George W. Bush about the program during his visit to Colorado on Tuesday.

"Our top priority is protecting public health and the environment, and we are in the final stages of developing a comprehensive strategy that will allow us to take the next step forward into a new generation of air pollution controls for the 21st century," Whitman said. "This fall, we will put forward an ambitious proposal that will reduce air pollution from power plants significantly more than the existing system. Subsequently, we will release the NSR report called for by the National Energy Policy."

The EPA and the White House are working to finalize the details of an ambitious legislative proposal that will set strict limits on utility emissions of the three major air pollutants that affect public health - nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and mercury - through the use of market based incentives. The air pollution reduction strategy will address concerns about the NSR program's effect on energy efficiency and capacity, Whitman said.

The New Source Review program requires that an air pollution source, such as a power plant or industrial complex, install the best pollution control equipment available when it builds a new facility or when it makes a major modification that increases emissions from an existing facility. The NSR was designed to ensure that new and modified sources do not hamper progress toward cleaner air.


Many of the worst polluters have been accused by the EPA of illegally upgrading without installing pollution controls
Under the Clinton administration, the EPA launched major enforcement actions against seven electric utility companies in the Midwest and South, as well as the federally run Tennessee Valley Authority. The EPA lawsuits charged that the utilities modified their older, coal burning power plants to produce substantially more energy, without installing required emissions control equipment.

The Bush administration has questioned whether those lawsuits, many of which have already been settled, were appropriate. The new administration, which prefers voluntary compliance programs over federal mandates, has said that enforcement of the New Source Review could contribute to power shortages.

In June, the EPA said that it "recognizes that the NSR process is complex and burdensome both for affected companies and for state and local agencies responsible for implementing the program."

In its May 2001 report, an energy task force headed by Vice President Richard Cheney recommended that the EPA, in consultation with other federal agencies, review NSR regulations to determine the impact of those regulations on investment in new utility and refinery generation capacity, energy efficiency and environmental protection.

So far, the EPA has met with more than 100 groups regarding the NSR program, held four public meetings and received more than 130,000 written comments from the public. The EPA will also use the extensive public comments to determine whether additional improvements to the NSR program are needed.


The New Source Review program affects not just power plants, but many other polluting industries, such as these along the Fox River in Wisconsin (Photo courtesy Great Lakes United)
The agency has been under considerable pressure from the power industry and other industrial sectors to weaken the NSR program and lighten their regulatory load. Earlier this month, the Washington, DC based nonprofit group Clean Air Trust released a letter sent by a coalition of industries to various Clinton administration officials, including Whitman, asking for an easing of Clean Air Act rules.

The coalition, led by the National Association of Manufacturers, told Whitman that "NSR related problems identified by electric utilities and refineries are common to all industry sectors," and asked the EPA administrator to "ensure that the Administration's review of the New Source Review (NSR) program addresses the impact on energy production, efficiency and environmental protection at the 22,000 industrial facilities affected by NSR."

Whitman said Tuesday that the Administration's new comprehensive clean air proposal will maintain stringent health based standards and establish firm, mandatory caps on levels of pollution, while providing industry with the flexibility to find the most cost effective means of meeting those standards. This approach would also significantly reduce the administrative burden on state and federal environmental agencies, allowing them to devote limited resources to other programs.

The Administration's legislative proposals concerning power plants will include tactics based on the Clean Air Act's acid rain "cap and trade" program, one of the most successful air pollution control programs in the world. With a 100 percent industry rate of compliance and low administrative costs, this program has eliminated more air pollution, more cost effectively, in the last decade than all other programs combined, Whitman said.


Air pollution crosses state lines and can end up in waterways and wilderness areas (Photo courtesy Center for Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences)
This approach to reducing air pollution while reducing regulatory burdens was endorsed by the nation's governors at last week's meeting of the bipartisan National Governor's Association (NGA) in Rhode Island. At that meeting, the governors unanimously adopted a National Energy Policy that called upon Congress to establish a flexible, market based program, such as emissions trading credits, to combat air pollution.

The NGA policy also called for reform of the New Source Review program "to achieve improvements that enhance the environment and increase energy production capacity."

"This bipartisan action by the nation's governors provides a firm foundation for consensus and action this fall on this major environmental goal of the Administration," said Whitman. "We are developing a comprehensive approach to improving our efforts to control air pollution, to achieve significant reductions in air pollution while simultaneously streamlining the regulatory process so it works better - achieving real reductions and full industry compliance at far less cost."


Loading iron ore at a smelter in Taconite Harbor, on Lake Superior in Minnesota (Photo courtesy Michigan Sea Grant)
"As we develop a new strategy to more effectively reduce air pollution, we will also evaluate the extent to which existing regulations may need to be modernized," Whitman added. "Our review of the NSR regulation is part of our larger effort to craft a new, comprehensive strategy to combat air pollution, and I am not prepared to come to any conclusions about one isolated issue before we finish work on our entire proposal."

The EPA and other federal agencies have been reviewing the NSR program since May to determine its impact on investment in new electricity generation and refinery capacity, energy efficiency and environmental protection. That review will now be finalized and released this fall as an element of the administration's comprehensive strategy to reduce air pollution.

The Washington, DC based conservation group Earthjustice said the EPA's refusal to meet its Friday deadline for releasing its final NSR report indicates that the agency is responding more to political motivations than to the clean air needs of the nation.

"EPA's decision not to release this report should raise a lot of eyebrows," said Nathalie Walker, managing attorney for Earthjustice's New Orleans office. "If this report were based on the facts instead of political motives, then the administration would have nothing to hide."

The EPA's own background report on the NSR program found no reasons for eliminating or drastically overhauling the program, Earthjustice charges.

"The public was poised to hear if the final report would maintain that message, or if the Bush administration would once again cave to political pressure from its industry contributors. Instead, the American people are being kept out of the loop," while the administration crafts a legislative strategy, Walker warned.