Air Permit Flexibility Not Going Beyond Power Sector: EPA’s Wehrum

Dec. 10, 2018, 8:52 PM

The EPA doesn’t have any plans to extend the proposed air permitting flexibility for power plants to other industrial sectors, the agency’s air chief says.

“The answer is no, It doesn’t mean forever, but for now, the answer is no,” Bill Wehrum, the Environmental Protection Agency’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, told Bloomberg Environment in a Dec. 7 interview when asked about extending the proposal.

For now, Wehrum wants to limit the changes the EPA is proposing to the “new source review” permitting program, as part of a broader rewrite of the Obama-era’s Clean Power Plan, to the power sector. California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Minnesota, and Virginia are among states that have opposed revising the new source review program and adding it to the redo of the Obama rule.

Oil and gas refiners and producers are backing this EPA-proposed change to air pollution permitting—now aimed only at power plants—in hopes it will eventually extend to their sectors.

The Clean Power Plan was the first time that the U.S. government set first-ever limits on carbon dioxide from existing power plants. The Trump administration is seeking to replace the 2015 rule with its own Affordable Clean Energy proposal (RIN:2060–AT67), which relies on improving efficiency of power plant operations and equipment to reduce greenhouse gases—specifically carbon dioxide emissions.

‘Out of Play’

Increasing the efficiency of power plant operations and equipment to reduce carbon dioxide has the unintended effect of increasing power plant releases of sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, Wehrum said.

Such an increase, in turn, triggers the new source review program that requires power plants, refineries, and other industrial plants to install costly pollution controls to curb these emissions if they expand or construct new plants.

“The effect of that is to take efficiency projects out of play,” Wehrum said,

“Unless you square up those two programs, they fight each other,” Wehrum said. ”We see [new source review] as blocking the ability of power plant operators to do some really, really efficient projects.”

The specific changes that the EPA wants to make to the new source review permit program under the proposal would allow states to determine whether industrial facilities trigger the requirement to install new pollution controls by calculating the nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide increases on an hourly basis rather than annually, as is done now.

That would allow coal-fired power plants to operate for longer hours, generate more power, and release more air pollution on an annual basis even if the hourly pollution rates aren’t as high.

‘No Sense’ to Wehrum’s Logic

Wehrum’s logic on the EPA’s changes makes “no sense” because “it flouts the Clean Air Act,” David Baron, managing attorney of nonprofit Earthjustice, told Bloomberg Environment.

Baron said the whole idea of the new source review permitting program is to ensure that growth doesn’t inhibit progress areas are making toward maintaining federal air quality standards or endanger public health in those areas that are falling short.

“No provision of the Clean Air Act allows tradeoff from other goals,” Baron said.

The EPA’s own analysis shows the added pollution from this proposed rollback would lead to thousands more deaths, “but the Trump EPA is still trying to weaken these vital standards so that dirty plants don’t have to use modern pollution controls,” Tomas Carbonell, the Environmental Defense Fund’s regulatory policy director, told Bloomberg Environment Dec. 10.

Wehrum’s approach has the backing of businesses that have long complained that the new source review permitting program is overly complicated and stands in the way of making efficiency upgrades and installing updated pollution controls.

Shortening reviews under this permitting program has been a priority for President Donald Trump’s EPA, which announced in a Dec. 10 news release the changes it has made to date.

The EPA cited David Friedman, regulatory affairs president for American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, who said the program changes have allowed its members to properly maintain and upgrade their facilities, without sacrificing the environment.

In contrast, states such as Virginia have questioned why the EPA has chosen for permitting purposes to treat the electricity generating sector differently than the other manufacturing sectors.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com; Mark Williams at mwilliams@bloombergenvironment.com

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