US Environmental Protection Agency given green light to move forward on emissions regulations

Publish date: September 30, 2009

WASHINGTON – US Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) chief Lisa Jackson announced Wednesday that that her agency was moving forward on new rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from hundreds of power plants and large industrial facilities under the aegis of the US Clean Air Act.

President Barack Obama had in April – when the EPA first ruled that CO2 and five other principle greenhouse gasses were pollutants subject to regulation – said he would prefer comprehensive legislation from Congress on regulating greenhouse gasses and stemming global warming, as opposed to hobbling into a piecemeal application of regulations. But that congressional approval has not yet materialised.

“EPA’s finding represents a bold step in the fight against climate change. This is the moment for Congress to summon up the courage to pass climate change legislation with ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The world is watching,” said Jonathan Temple, director of Bellona USA.

“For a long time, US leadership on climate change has been lacking. Let‘s hope that EPA’s decision is a sign that the Obama administration will come to Copenhagen with constructive and ambitious plans,” he said.

As deeply committed as the White House is to passing climate legislation this year, however, the bill is caught in a backlog of other legislation, and Obama has authorised the EPA to begin moving toward regulation.

The climate bill is currently mired among heath care legislation and financial bailouts, and turning the EPA loose toward regulation, which is its right, could also send a strong signal that the United States is serious about international climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December at a time when many countries, particularly those in the EU, are criticising American emissions cuts proposals.

“We are not going to continue with business as usual,” Jackson told reporters on Wednesday. “We have the tools and the technology to move forward today, and we are using them.”

Jackson announced a new proposal requiring large industrial facilities that emit at least 25,000 tons of green house gasses a year to obtain construction and operating permits covering these emissions

These permits must demonstrate the use of best available control technologies and energy efficiency measures to minimize greenhouse gas emissions when facilities are constructed or significantly modified.

The EPA proposal means that it would assume authority for the greenhouse gas emissions of 14,000 coal-burning power plants, refineries and big industrial complexes that produce most of the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution.

These large facilities – which are responsible for about 70 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions –  would include power plants, refineries, and factories. Smaller businesses such as farms and restaurants, and many other types of small facilities, would not be included in these requirements.

The proposed rules, which could take effect as early as 2011, would place the greatest burden on 400 power plants, new ones and those undergoing substantial renovation, by requiring them to prove that they are in accordance with these rules – or face penalties. 

In total, approximately 14,000 large sources would need to obtain operating permits that include greenhouse gas emissions. Most of these sources are already subject to clean air permitting requirements because they emit other pollutants.

The move to allow the EPA to move forward with regulation was timed to come on the same day that two Democratic senators, John  Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California, introduced global warming and energy legislation that faces a steep climb to passage this year, a congressional aide told Bellona Web.

The proposed tailoring rule addresses a group of six greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).

The proposal will go through several months of drafting and public comment and faces likely litigation from industry and perhaps from environmentalists or citizen groups, the congressional aide told Bellona Web.

The prospect of EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions has generated fear and deep divisions within American industry. Some major utilities, oil companies and other heavy emitters are working closely with Congress to ensure that a climate bill would circumvent EPA regulation by substituting a market-based cap-and-trade system.

Others, led by the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, have worked against legislation and threatened to sue if the EPA tries to impose controls on emissions of heat-trapping gases.

A typical coal-burning power plant emits several million tons of carbon dioxide a year. The 25,000-ton limit is comparable to the emissions from burning 131 rail cars of coal or the annual energy use of about 2,200 homes, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma and an opponent of global warming legislation, called the proposed rule “a backdoor energy tax” that circumvents Congress and violates the terms of the Clean Air Act, the New York Times reported.

Scott Segal, a utility lobbyist with the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington, said the rule should not be used to rush Congress into passing a poorly drafted bill. But he also said that the proposal “strengthens the president’s negotiating hand in Copenhagen.”

“Even if the Senate does not act,” Segal told the paper, “(Obama) can legitimately say to other nations, ‘We are taking action on a unilateral basis. What are you doing?’” 

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